Police Search May Divide Supreme Court

The Associated Press
Thursday, May 18, 2006; 6:47 PM

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices sparred Thursday over police searches in a case that could signal a change in direction for the court after the arrival of two new conservative members.

The court has been generally cohesive and congenial under new Chief Justice John Roberts and in the three and a half months since Samuel Alito became the new junior justice. Earlier this week, for example, the justices ruled in four cases and were 9-0 in each.

They appeared fractured, however, as they debated for the second time whether police can rush into a home without knocking and seize evidence for use at a trial.

The case may have a different outcome without retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She seemed ready, when the case was first argued in January, to rule in favor of a Detroit man whose house was searched in 1998.

Alito was confirmed to replace O'Connor before the case was resolved. The new argument was scheduled apparently to give Alito a chance to break a tie vote.

Alito, a former appeals court judge and government lawyer, seemed more sympathetic to police. He asked tough questions of the lawyer for Booker Hudson Jr., who was convicted of cocaine possession based on evidence found in the search. Alito had no questions for government lawyers.

The case tests previous Supreme Court rulings that police armed with warrants generally must knock and announce themselves or they run afoul of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches. The court has said that police can enter after giving people 15 seconds to 20 seconds to get to the door.

In this case, officers called out their presence at Hudson's door then went inside three seconds to five seconds later.

The ruling will be announced next month, and liberal justices declared that the stakes are high.

Justice Stephen Breyer said if the court rules against Hudson "we'd let a computer virus loose in the Fourth Amendment. ... It strikes me as risky and unprecedented."

Justice David H. Souter said that the court has said "there is enough respect for a person's home. ... The police should not barge in like an invading army."

On the other side, Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia were sharply critical of Hudson's claim that the evidence was connected to the improper search and could not be used against him.

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