WASHINGTON - Police officers who knock on a person's front door to execute a search warrant for drugs generally are entitled to break in after waiting 15 to 20 seconds and getting no response, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.
The justices concluded that Las Vegas police officers acted reasonably when they beat in the front door of Lashawn Banks, who was suspected of selling cocaine at his home, after he did not respond to their knocking and announcement that they were outside.
Banks had argued that police violated his constitutional rights by breaking into his apartment. He said he had heard nothing until the crash at the door, which immediately brought him, dripping, out of the shower, where he encountered the officers.
But in an opinion written by Justice David H. Souter, the court held that in light of Banks' suspected drug dealing, police had waited outside long enough.
"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," the court said.
Banks had argued that police hadn't given him enough time to answer, but the court said that the officers were right to focus on the amount of time it would take to get rid of the cocaine.
"What matters is the opportunity to get rid of cocaine, which a prudent dealer will keep near a commode or kitchen sink," Souter wrote for the court. "It is imminent disposal, not travel time to the entrance, that governs when the police may reasonably enter."
Fifteen to 20 seconds, the court concluded, "does not seem an unrealistic guess about the time someone would need to get in a position to rid his quarters of cocaine."
The justices noted that the outcome might be different had Banks been suspected of a different crime, such as stealing a piano. In a case in which police were not concerned about destruction of evidence, the officers could not justify acting so quickly, the court suggested.
After breaking into Banks' apartment, police forced him to the floor and handcuffed him. They then took him naked into the kitchen and searched the apartment, where they found cocaine, guns and cash.
He subsequently was convicted of drug and firearms possession, but argued that the police search was illegal, in violation of the Constitution's 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, holding that police did not wait long enough because Banks had not refused to let them in and because there was no compelling reason to immediately gain entry.
In a separate case yesterday, justices suggested that state officials could refuse to award scholarships to students majoring in theology, despite claims that excluding them amounted to discrimination based solely on their religious views.
During a lively, hourlong session that showcased the court's deep divisions on issues regarding the separation of church and state, the court's more liberal justices clearly were sympathetic to arguments that taxpayers should not have to subsidize a student's religious training.
Their concerns about the far-ranging implications of a ruling forcing states to include those students in scholarship programs seemed to strike a chord with moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who generally is considered the key vote in controversial church-state cases. O'Connor appeared deeply troubled that a decision ordering the state to fund religious scholarships would have far-ranging implications on school voucher programs and call into question dozens of state constitutions that erect a high barrier between church and state.
"What you're urging here would have a major impact, would it not, on voucher programs?" O'Connor asked a lawyer for a theology student challenging his exclusion from a scholarship program in Washington state.
Attorney Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, conceded that a decision in favor of the student could force states to include religious schools in their voucher programs.
O'Connor also expressed concern that such a ruling would disrupt long-held beliefs on government funding of religion.
"There's been a couple of centuries of practice in this country of not funding religious instruction by tax money," she told a lawyer for the Bush administration, which is supporting the student.
Her more liberal colleagues, seeking to draw her to their side, repeatedly emphasized that the implications would be "breathtaking," in the words of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, if the court ruled in the student's favor.
"It would mean if your side wins, that every program, not just educational programs, but nursing programs, hospital programs, social welfare programs, contracting programs ... that they cannot be purely secular, that they must fund all religions who want to do the same thing," Breyer told Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, arguing on behalf of the Bush administration.