The D.C. Court of Appeals, overturning an earlier decision by a three-member appeals panel, ruled yesterday that police may make searches without a warrant if they believe crucial evidence might otherwise be lost.
The decision, written by Judge John M. Ferren, was a rare instance of the full court overturning a decision by a panel of its members. In the ruling, adopted by a 5-to-3 vote, the court said police may forgo obtaining a warrant in an investigation if to do so would mean a delay in which suspects might destroy potential government evidence.
In a dissenting opinion, the minority wrote that "we now have a warrant clock which ticks away imperceptibly yet inexorably on an incipient violation of constitutional rights. . . ."
The ruling was made in the case of Willie L. Minick, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of a woman whose body was found strangled and sexually assaulted three years ago, five blocks from Minick's home.
In pretrial motions, Minick's attorney argued before Judge Carlisle E. Pratt that police, who arrested Minick at his home without a search warrant four hours after the body was found, illegally seized evidence from his person and his house.
Pratt ruled that the government could not use that evidence at trial. Prosecutors appealed Pratt's ruling, arguing that police investigating the murder did not have time to obtain a warrant and feared Minick might destroy such evidence as dirt stains and body hairs by taking a shower before they could arrive with a warrant.
A three-member appeals panel upheld Pratt's decision by a vote of 2 to 1, with Ferren casting the dissenting vote. In overruling the panel yesterday, the full court held that police making a "difficult judgment call" were correct in continuing their investigation, rather than stopping to obtain a warrant.
The two judges who formed the panel's majority were among the dissenters in yesterday's action.
Pratt had ruled that police had ample time to obtain a search warrant but failed to make any effort to do so. Pratt also wrote that police had no reason to believe that Minick had not already destroyed the evidence.