Every Second Counts to the U.S. Supreme Court

Article excerpt

After hearing arguments in October, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in the landmark knock and announce case, United States v. Banks, 02-473 (Dec. 2, 2003). The court has determined that 15-20 seconds is a sufficient amount of time for law enforcement officers to wait before forcibly entering a dwelling to execute a search warrant.

While the decision answers some nagging questions regarding wait times, the court's ruling also challenges some previously recommended guidelines for officers to use when determining whether to enter a dwelling after knocking and announcing.

"I would have been shocked if it went the other way," Greg Meyer, a Captain with the Los Angeles Police Department and police tactics consultant, said. "The court seems to appreciate the difficult challenges that law enforcement faces. This is a very common sense decision that promotes public safety by affirming a reasonable procedure the police use to fight crime."

In 1998, officers from the North Las Vegas Police Department and FBI agents executed a search warrant for drugs at the apartment of suspected drug dealer Lashawn Banks. Officers followed standard procedure when they knocked loudly on Banks' front door and said, "Police search warrant." There was no immediate response from inside. Officers waited 15-20 seconds before forcibly entering the apartment.

Once inside, they found Banks naked, emerging from the shower. He testified that he had never heard the police. Banks' attorneys argued that 15-20 seconds was not a sufficient amount of time for police to wait and that Banks was deprived of the opportunity to open the door for the police. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was reversed in favor of the police.

Suspect's Shower Irrelevant

The fact that the suspect was taking a shower is not relevant in determining how long police should have waited, according to Supreme Court Justice Souter. "[T]he facts known to the police are what count in judging a reasonable waiting time, and there is no indication that they knew that Banks was in the shower and thus unaware of an impeding search that he would otherwise have tried to frustrate," Souter said in his decision.

Judge Souter's remarks mirror those of Judge Fisher of the Ninth Circuit Court. Judge Fisher was the only justice to oppose the lower court's ruling in favor of Banks. Apparently, the Supreme Court gave significant weight to Judge Fisher's dissent when crafting its own decision.

The Grand Piano Theory

In Banks, law enforcement officers had correctly presumed that the suspect's lack of a response constituted a refusal of entry in the eyes of the court. Therefore, a suspect's permission or refusal is not at issue in this case. The court points out that "the crucial fact is not the time it would take Banks to reach the door but the time it would take him to destroy the cocaine."

The police argued that as soon as they declared their presence to Banks, he could have easily made a mad dash to the sink to get rid of the cocaine. Therefore, the distance to the door is not as vital as the distance between the drugs and the nearest toilet bowl or drain. As Judge Souter wisely pointed out, "a prudent dealer will keep [cocaine] near a commode or kitchen sink."

During oral arguments, defense counsel argued that the wait time issue rested upon whether officers had waited long enough to determine they were being denied admittance by suspect Banks. The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed. By example, the Court points out that if when a suspect is hiding a stolen grand piano in his home, the same level of urgency does not exist for officers executing a search warrant.

According to the Supreme Court, there is no basis for giving a longer wait time to a suspect living in a mansion "than the resident of a bungalow or an apartment like Banks" when dealing with evidence that could be easily destroyed. …