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High court says every second counts in search for illicit drugs

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court yesterday strengthened the power of police to investigate drug crimes, ruling that officers are allowed to break down the door of a private home to make a search if no one answers their knock within 15 to 20 seconds.

That period is a long enough wait to let the occupants respond, but not so long that anyone inside would have a realistic chance to flush any drugs down a toilet or a kitchen sink, the court said in a unanimous decision.

The justices said the ruling applies only to situations involving serious crimes like narcotics violations, and only those crimes where the evidence is of a type that could be destroyed quickly.

The court has long held that police are obliged under the Constitution to knock and announce themselves when they want to enter a private dwelling, and it has said that police may damage doors or windows sufficiently to gain entry if they need to do so to enforce the law. But the Supreme Court has never clarified how long the officers must wait for someone to come to the door, and thus when the officers would be free to conclude that they are not going to get a response, so must force their way in.

Insisting that it was not laying down a hard-and-fast constitutional rule that would govern all forcible entries by police, the court declared that the circumstances in this particular case made a short wait acceptable: "We think that after 15 or 20 seconds without a response, police could fairly suspect that cocaine would be gone if they were reticent any longer."

Federal appeals courts have routinely held that similar waiting times before entry was forced do not violate the Fourth Amendment ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures."

The case involved a North Las Vegas, Nev., man, Lashawn Lowell Banks, who pleaded guilty to possessing cocaine and having an illegal gun, but then challenged the use of the evidence that led to the charges. A federal appeals court overturned the guilty pleas, finding that the evidence had been gathered unconstitutionally because police did not wait long enough before breaking down his door.

FBI agents and local police had obtained information that Banks was selling cocaine at his apartment. They obtained a search warrant to check it, and when they arrived, Banks apparently was in the shower.

The officers knocked, announcing that they had a warrant. But when they heard no response from inside, after waiting 15 to 20 seconds, they broke the door down with a battering ram. They confronted Banks standing inside, naked, wet, and still soapy after emerging from the shower.

They searched the apartment, finding three weapons, a bullet-proof vest, cocaine, and a scale for weighing.

Justice David Souter, who wrote the decision, said: "What matters is the opportunity to get rid of cocaine, which a prudent dealer will keep near a commode or kitchen sink."

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