- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003


In a victory for law officers, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that it was constitutional for police to wait only 20 seconds before knocking down the door of a drug suspect.

LaShawn Banks was taking a shower when masked and heavily armed officers broke into his Las Vegas apartment in 1998 looking for drugs.

His case gave the court the opportunity to clarify how long police must wait before breaking into a home to serve a warrant. The court ruled 9-0 that a 20-second delay was ample, because any longer would give drug suspects time to flush evidence down the toilet.

The justices refused, however, to spell out exactly how long is reasonable in executing warrants for drugs or other contraband.

Officers knocked and announced themselves at Mr. Banks’ apartment, then waited 15 seconds to 20 seconds before using a battering ram to break down the door.

Justice David H. Souter, writing for the court, said that because police believed there were drugs inside, officers had more reason to rush.

“Police seeking a stolen piano may be able to spend more time to make sure they really need the battering ram,” Justice Souter wrote.

He said while “this call is a close one, 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.”

Smart drug dealers, he said, would keep their contraband near a commode or sink.

The Supreme Court has said that in most cases officers are required to knock and announce themselves, under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.

In yesterday’s ruling, Justice Souter said that generally courts have considered whether police moved too hastily “case by case, largely avoiding categories and protocols for searches.”

The North Las Vegas police and federal officers found 11 ounces of crack cocaine and three guns during the raid. Mr. Banks served four years of an 11-year prison sentence before his conviction was overturned.

Justices reversed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Mr. Banks’ favor.

Mr. Banks, 26, was at work yesterday and not immediately available for comment. His attorney, Randall Roske, said the ruling opened the door to police abuse.

“We’re going to have a race to the bottom,” Mr. Roske said in Las Vegas. “Police are going to read this as, ‘Knock and announce and kick the door in.’”

The appeals court had said that officers should wait “a significant amount of time” before making a nonforced entry, and a “more substantial amount of time” between knock and entry if property would be destroyed.

Justice Souter said that the appeals court was wrong to set up a multipart method for reviewing knock-and-announce cases.

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