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High Court Rejects Automatic No-Knock Drug Exception to Search Warrant Knock and Announce Rule


May-June 1997

Wisconsin's blanket exception for drug searches to the constitutional rule that requires police to knock and announce their presence before executing a search warrant was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court on April 28. The Supreme Court held that Wisconsin's policy violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures (Richards v. Wisconsin, US SupCt, No. 96-5955, 61CrL2057, (April 28, 1997); Linda Greenhouse, "Court Rejects Special Rules for Drug Searches," New York Times, April 29, 1997, p. A14; Joan Biskupic, "High Court Limits Brutality Liability," Washington Post, April 29, 1997, p. A1; "Opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court," Criminal Law Reporter, April 30, 1997, Vol. 61, No. 5, p. 2055; "High Court rejects blanket exception to 'knock and announce' rule," BNA Criminal Practice Manual, May 7, 1997, Vol. 11, No. 10, p. 188; "Court Rejects Blanket Rule On 'No Knock' Searches," Drug Enforcement Report, May 8, 1997, p. 1).

Wisconsin's blanket approval of no-knock police raids in felony drug cases "impermissibly insulates these cases from judicial review," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his opinion for the court. Justice Stevens said that although many drug searches present circumstances that would justify a no-knock entry by police, such searches must be justified on a case-by-case basis. "In order to justify a 'no-knock' entry, the police must have a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile, or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of the crime by, for example, allowing the destruction of evidence," Justice Stevens wrote. He added that Wisconsin's categorical approach to drug cases was unconfined. "If a per se exception were allowed for each category of criminal investigation that included a considerable -- albeit hypothetical -- risk of danger to officers of destruction of evidence," he said, "the knock-and-announce element of the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement would be meaningless."

In 1996, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Steiney Richards, who was arrested on December 31, 1991 in a Madison, Wisconsin motel room for possession of cocaine by police who forced their way in without knocking. Police requested, and were denied, a no-knock entry for that raid. In that decision, the Wisconsin high court adopted a blanket exception to the knock-and-announce rule for all warranted searches involving a drug felony (549 N.W.2d 218, 59CrL1277 (1996)). The Wisconsin court ruled that a blanket exception was warranted in drug cases because of the "extremely high risk of serious if not deadly injury to the police" as well as the ease with which evidence can be destroyed. In rejecting Wisconsin's exception to the "knock-and-announce" rule, Stevens wrote, "The fact that felony drug investigations may frequently present circumstances warranting a no-knock entry cannot remove from the neutral scrutiny of a reviewing court the reasonableness of the police decision not to knock and announce in a particular case."

Despite its rejection of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's analysis of drug searches, the U.S. Supreme Court in applying its standard upheld Richard's conviction. Justice Stevens said the circumstances of the search "justified the officers' ultimate decision to enter without first announcing their presence and authority."

The decision was the Court's second in two years on the subject of no-knock entries by police. In 1995, the court had ruled in an Arkansas case (Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 57CrL2122 (1995)) that the Fourth Amendment generally requires police to first knock and identify themselves when carrying out a search warrant. However, in that decision, the Supreme court ruled that a no-knock execution of a search warrant may be justified by factual circumstances in some cases. In Wilson, the high court left it to the lower courts to determine "the circumstances under which an unannounced entry is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment."