April 24, 2006

US justices seem to back police search powers

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Several U.S. Supreme Court justices,
in an important case on police search powers, on Monday
appeared to back the right of officers to enter a house without
a warrant, if they saw unlawful behavior within.

"This doesn't seem unreasonable," Justice Stephen Breyer
said of officers who went into a home in Utah after seeing
underage drinking and a fight in which a youth punched an adult
in the nose, drawing blood.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the loud noise from the party
alone could justify police entry.

"I would think that's perfectly reasonable, never mind the
punch in the nose," he said.

The case, which was argued on Monday, could clarify what
constitutes an emergency that justifies a police entry into a
private home without a warrant.

Four officers arrived at 3 a.m. on July 23, 2000, at a
house in Brigham City, Utah, in response to a complaint from a
neighbor about a loud party. One officer saw two teenagers in
the backyard drinking beer.

Officers in the backyard could clearly see into the house
through a screen door and two windows. They saw several adults
restraining a juvenile, who then broke free and struck one of
the adults in the face with his fist.

Two officers opened the screen door and yelled "police" but
because of the noise from the party no one heard them. They
then entered the kitchen and yelled loudly several times before
the occupants finally realized the police were present.

The adults, Charles Stuart and Shayne and Sandra Taylor,
were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, intoxication
and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Utah Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Gray told the
Supreme Court the officers had been justified in entering the
house to stop a crime and to protect others from harm.

He urged the justices to overturn a Utah Supreme Court
ruling that the entry into the home was unjustified and that
the officers should have knocked before entering.

Justice David Souter questioned why the police should have
to knock when they would not have been heard because of the
noise. "Isn't there something bizarre about saying the
reasonableness standard (governing permissible police searches)
requires something futile?" Souter asked.

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty of the U.S. Justice
Department said the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches
would not require that an officer stand by as a spectator in
the face of possible escalating violence in the home.

Michael Studebaker, representing the defendants,
encountered skepticism for his argument that the officers
should have left the party and obtained a warrant before they
could enter the home.

A ruling in the case is expected by the end of June.