The late Chalmers Johnson often reminded us that “A nation can be one or the other, a democracy or an imperialist, but it can’t be both. If it sticks to imperialism, it will, like the old Roman Republic, on which so much of our system was modeled, lose its democracy to a domestic dictatorship.” His warning rings more true by the day, as Americans watch the erosion of their civil liberties accelerate in conjunction with the expansion of the US Empire.
When viewed through the lens of Johnson’s profound insights, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Kentucky v. King makes perfect sense. On May 13, in a lopsided 8-1 ruling, the Court upheld the warrantless search of a Kentucky man’s apartment after police smelled marijuana and feared those inside were destroying evidence, essentially granting police officers increased power to enter the homes of citizens without a warrant.
Under the Fourth Amendment, police are barred from entering a home without first obtaining a warrant, which can only be issued by a judge upon probable cause. The only exception is when the circumstances qualify as “exigent,” meaning there is imminent risk of death or serious injury, danger that evidence will be immediately destroyed, or that a suspect will escape. However, exigent circumstances cannot be created by the police.
In this case, the police followed a suspected drug dealer into an apartment complex and after losing track of him, smelled marijuana coming from one of the apartments. After banging on the door and announcing themselves, the police heard noises that they interpreted as the destruction of evidence. Rather than first obtaining a warrant, they kicked down the door and arrested the man inside, who was caught flushing marijuana down the toilet.
The Kentucky Supreme Court had overturned the man’s conviction and ruled that exigent circumstances did not apply because the behavior of the police is what prompted the destruction of evidence. Tragically, an overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court upheld the Conviction. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that citizens are not required to grant police officers permission to enter their homes after hearing a knock, but if there is no response and the officers hear noise that suggests evidence is being destroyed, they are justified in breaking in.
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