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Supreme Court eviscerates 4th Amendment over marijuana smell

• By: Russ Belville, NORML Outreach Coordinator
May 17th, 2011
By: Russ Belville, NORML Outreach Coordinator 
 
In a case decided yesterday, Kentucky v. King, the US Supreme Court has ruled that cops who smell marijuana coming from your home can break down your door and arrest you, just as long as they knock first and claim to have heard you destroying evidence.

They don’t need a warrant or probable cause, either.  Today in America, police can now randomly patrol neighborhoods and apartment complexes sniffing around for pot.  When they smell it, they can knock on your door and then break it down, claiming they heard noises from within.

The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution plainly states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Writing for the Supreme Court in a 1980 case called Payton v. New York, Justice Stevens reiterated:

In terms that apply equally to seizures of property and to seizures of persons, the Fourth Amendment has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house. Absent exigent circumstances, that threshold may not reasonably be crossed without a warrant.

The smell of a burning flower and the sound of “scurrying” are now the “exigent circumstances” needed to “reasonably” cross that “firm line” without a warrant.

(Los Angeles Times) Ruling in a Kentucky case Monday, the justices said that officers who smell marijuana and loudly knock on the door may break in if they hear sounds that suggest the residents are scurrying to hide the drugs.

Residents who “attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame” when police burst in, said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for an 8-1 majority.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she feared the ruling gave police an easy way to ignore 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. She said the amendment’s “core requirement” is that officers have probable cause and a search warrant before they break into a house.

“How ’secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and …forcibly enter?” Ginsburg asked.

The Supreme Court ruled in Kentucky vs. King that the officers’ conduct “was entirely lawful,” and they were justified in breaking in to prevent the destruction of the evidence.

Note to self and advice to others:  When you’re smoking pot in your home and the cops come a-knockin’, be very, very quiet.  I’m only half-kidding, for as Justice Alito writes:

When law enforcement officers who are not armed with a warrant knock on a door, they do no more than any private citizen might do. And whether the person who knocks on the door and requests the opportunity to speak is a police officer or a private citizen, the occupant has no obligation to open the door or to speak. Cf. Florida v. Royer460 U. S. 491, 497-498 (1983). (“[H]e may decline to listen to the questions at all and may go on his way”). When the police knock on a door but the occupants choose not to respond or to speak, “the investigation will have reached a conspicuously low point,” and the occupants “will have the kind of warning that even the most elaborate security system cannot provide.”

If you make noise when the cops knock, police can interpret that as you attempting to hide or destroy evidence (drugs), which creates the “exigent circumstance” needed to break down your door.  Which leads me to ask, what does hiding or destroying cannabis sound like?  I suppose the sounds of garbage disposals, trash compactors, and flushing toilets would be obvious answers.  In King’s case, “scurrying” was enough; I guess cops could argue that he was running to the window throw out a baggie.  Of course this all depends on taking the police at their word when they testify that they heard the “scurrying”.

In the King case, the cops weren’t even looking for King.  They were conducting a sting operation on a street-level crack dealer.  When he ran upstairs to his apartment on the right, the police followed, but they lost him.  As they reached the apartment on the right, they smelled marijuana from King’s apartment on the left.  The police knocked loudly on the apartment on the left.  They then heard “scurrying”, so they broke down the door and caught King with marijuana and cocaine.

The smell of marijuana burning does give police indication there is a crime taking place behind that door – the possession of at least a joint or a bowl of marijuana.  In Kentucky, such a first offense would be a crime worthy of a misdemeanor with a max of one year in jail and a $500 fine.  It would take more than eight ounces on a first offense for felony charges.  The police, not knowing King or having any probable cause to go after King, essential beat down his door on the “exigent circumstance” he may be destroying evidence of a misdemeanor.  Is it “reasonable” to violate a man’s 4th Amendment rights over a potential misdemeanor?

At NORML, we often get demands from legalization supporters to “sue the government” to end the improper and unconstitutional prohibition of cannabis.  It has been tried and tried again, including our own NORML v. DEA suit, and certainly there are many more suits to be tried.  But given this 8-1 decision and the current makeup of the Supreme Court that promises a solid 5-4 majority of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Kennedy against any meaningful reforms, it seems clear to me that the path to legalization does not lead through the judiciary.  This is a federal court system that has twisted precedent and the intent of the Constitution in the name of eradicating marijuana by recently deciding:

that intrastate personal non-commercial medical use of marijuana is controlled by interstate commerce (Raich v. Gonzales); that police can sneak up onto your driveway on your private property and secretly place a GPS tracking device on your car to follow you to grow shops (USA v. Juan Pineda-Moreno); that merely being in possession of a firearm while growing marijuana is a crime (USA v. Somkhit Thongsy); that an 18-year-old student standing on a public sidewalk can be expelled by his high school for holding a sign with the word “bong” on it (Frederick v. Morse); that religions using Schedule I ayahuasca or Schedule I peyote as a holy sacrament should have a First Amendment exception to drug law prosecution (Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal), but religions that use Schedule I cannabis made the mistake of choosing too popular an illegal holy sacrament (USA v. Quaintence); and that police who’ve stopped your vehicle may run a drug-sniffing dog around your car even without any probable cause to believe the driver is involved with drugs in any way (Illinois v. Caballes).

So long as the law says marijuana is contraband and its possession and cultivation a crime, the federal courts will always find a way to rule to maintain marijuana prohibition.  The solution lies in Congress (depressing as that may be) and changing the law.

Mon, 16 May 2011 18:36:55  By: Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director
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Police prosecute over 850,000 Americans annually for violating state marijuana laws. The penalties for those busted and convicted vary greatly, ranging from the imposition of small fines to license revocation to potential incarceration. But for the citizens arrested in these five states, the ramifications of even a minor pot bust are likely to be exceptionally severe.

Alternet.org’s editors recently asked me to compile a list of ‘the worst of the worst’ states to be busted for personal pot possession. Without further ado, here they are:

The 5 Worst States to Get Busted With Pot
via Alternet.org

[excerpt]

1. Oklahoma — Lawmakers in the Sooner State made headlines this spring when legislators voted 119 to 20 in favor of House Bill 1798, which enhances the state sentencing guidelines for hash manufacturing to a minimum of two years in jail and a maximum penalty of life in prison. (Mary Fallin, the state’s first-ever female governor, signed the measure into law in April; it takes effect on November 1, 2011.) But longtime Oklahoma observers were hardly surprised at lawmakers’ latest “life for pot” plan. After all, state law already allows judges to hand out life sentences for those convicted of cannabis cultivation or for the sale of a single dime-bag.

2. Texas — On an annual basis, no state arrests and criminally prosecutes more of its citizens for pot than does Texas. Marijuana arrests comprise over half of all annual arrests in the Lone Star State. It is easy to see why. In 2009, more than 97 percent of all Texas marijuana arrests — over 77,000 people — were for possession only. Those convicted face up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine, even upon a first conviction.

3. Florida — According to a 2009 state-by-state analysis by researcher and former NORML Director Jon Gettman, no other state routinely punishes minor marijuana more severely than does the Sunshine State. Under Florida law, marijuana possession of 20 grams or less (about two-thirds of an ounce) is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to one-year imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Marijuana possession over 20 grams, as well as the cultivation of even a single pot plant, are defined by law as felony offenses – punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. In recent years, state lawmakers have revisited the state’s marijuana penalties – in each case electing to enhance Florida’s already toughest-in-the-nation criminal punishments.

4. Louisiana — In Louisiana, multi-decade (or even life) sentences for repeat pot offenders are hardly a rare occurrence. Under Louisiana law, a second pot possession conviction is classified as a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Three-time offenders face up to 20 years in prison. According to a 2008 expose published in New Orleans City Business online, district attorneys are not hesitant to “target small-time marijuana users, sometimes caught with less than a gram of pot, and threaten them with lengthy prison sentences.”

5. Arizona — Forty years ago virtually every state in the nation defined marijuana possession as a felony offense. Today, only one state, Arizona, treats first-time pot possession in such an archaic and punitive manner. Under Arizona law, even minor marijuana possession offenses may be prosecuted as felony crimes, punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $150,000 fine. According to Jon Gettman’s 2009 analysis only Florida consistently treats minor marijuana possession cases more severely.

For a comprehensive breakdown of state-by-state marijuana penalties, visit NORML’s online map here. To get active in changing the laws of your state, visit NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’ here, sign up for free NORML news and legislative alerts, get involved with your local NORML chapter (or start your own chapter here), and join national NORML.

 

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