Recent Court Decisions: Richards v. Wisconsin

Supreme Court Hears Arguments on "No-Knock" Entries in Drug Searches.

Richards v. Wisconsin, 96-5955.

On Monday 23 March 1997 the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Wisconsin case that may provide a blanket exception to previous rulings that declare no-knock entries as unlawful. The court seemed to give serious consideration to permitting police to enter private residences without announcing themselves if they have court warrants to search for drugs. The primary justification for entering without knocking would be self-protection and the prevention of destruction of evidence.

The circumstances of the conviction on appeal involve the arrest of a 19-year-old Detroit man, Steiney Richards. Richards was arrested after Madison police entered his hotel room at 3:40 a.m. on 31 December 1991 without knocking and found 120 packets of cocaine. His conviction resulted in a 13 year prison sentence.

In arguments, the Justices noted the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision of Maryland v. Wilson in which police were given powers to order all occupants of a vehicle out of a car stopped for a traffic violation. The justification for such powers in the Maryland case was the public interest in officer safety. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked in arguments "Isn't this just as sensible?" referring to no-knock entries in potentially threatening drug searches. But Justices also noted the lack of statistical evidence supporting no-knock entries as a way to lessen the dangers of a drug raid. "As far as we know, (police) are as apt to be hurt if they don't knock and announce as if they do, " Justice Sandra Day O'Conner noted.

At issue is the balance between privacy and public interest concerns. The Supreme Court has frowned on no-knock entries except in exigent circumstances. Defense attorneys pointed to the 1995 ruling of Wilson v. Arkansas, 115 S.Ct. 1914 (1995), generally disfavoring no-knock entries. However, in arguments supporting the blanket exception to no-knock entries, Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle pointed to the realities of the modern-day drug trade. "Drug dealing is illegal commerce . . marked by danger and violence," Doyle said. "It is characterized by weapons, a willingness to use weapons . . . gang violence."

Clinton administration lawyers argued in favor of permitting no-knock entries when police have good reason to believe there are weapons on the premises or in cases where evidence may be destroyed in the 10 to 20 seconds between knocking and announcing. This could lead to a blanket exception to knock and announce requirements in drug searches.

The case comes to the Supreme Court on appeal from a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision. In that case, State v. Richards, 549 N.W.2d 218 (Wis. 1996), the Wisconsin Court ruled that the police are not required to adhere to the rule of "knock and announce" when executing a search warrant involving felonious drug delivery. The court said that exigent circumstances that are always present when executing search warrants involving felonious drug delivery include the extremely high risk of serious if not deadly injury to the police and the potential for disposal of drugs prior to police entry to serve a warrant.

The Wisconsin court is the only court to adopt a blanket rule that it is reasonable to dispense with the knock and announce requirements that the United States Supreme Court said in the 1995 case of Wilson v. Arkansas, 115 S.Ct. 1914 (1995) is part of the Fourth Amendment reasonableness requirement. The Wilson Court did indicate that exceptions could be made to the general knock and announce requirement based upon exigent circumstances, but the view of most state and federal courts subsequent to Wilson has been that such exceptions must be made on a case-by-case basis, not across the board for a whole category of cases as the Wisconsin court has done.

The Wisconsin court said:

" . . . Richards argues that because the police failed to 'knock and announce' prior to entering his motel room to execute a search warrant, any evidence seized must be suppressed. The issue is simply stated: whether the Fourth Amendment allows a blanket exception to the general requirement of 'knock and announce' (the rule of announcement) for entries into premises pursuant to a search warrant for evidence of felonious drug delivery. We conclude that exigent circumstances are always present in the execution of search warrants involving felonious drug delivery, an extremely high risk of serious if not deadly injury to the police as well as the potential for the disposal of drugs by the occupants prior to entry by the police. [We use the phrase 'felonious drug delivery' to mean felonious delivery of drugs or felonious possession with intent to deliver drugs in violation of Subchapter IV, Wis.Stat. pars. 161.41, 161.42 and 161.43.] The public interests inherent in these circumstances far outweigh the minimal privacy interests of the occupants of the dwelling for which a search warrant has already been issued. Accordingly, we re-affirm State v. Stevens, 181 Wis.2d 410, 511 N.W.2d 591 (1994), cert. denied, --- U.S. ---, 115 S.Ct. 2345, 132 L.Ed.2d 254 (1995), and conclude that police are not required to adhere to the rule of announcement when executing a search warrant involving felonious drug delivery."

On 3 January 1997, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case, Richards v. Wisconsin, No. 96-5955. The court heard arguments on 23 March 1997. LELP publisher James P. Manak filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement and other law enforcement organizations in support of the no-knock blanket exception. A decision is expected in July, 1997.

Note: As with all the cases discussed on the web pages of LELP, do not assume the law on this subject is the same in your jurisdiction; check with your legal advisor to determine the law in your own jurisdiction and how it would apply in a particular case.

Copyright (c) 1997 Law Enforcement Legal Publications (tm)

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