In a victory for law officers, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that it was constitutional for police to wait 20 seconds before knocking down the door of a drug suspect.
LASHAWN BANKS was taking a shower when masked and heavily armed officers broke into his Las Vegas apartment in 1998 looking for drugs.
His case gave the court the opportunity to clarify how long police must wait before breaking into a home to serve a warrant. The court ruled 9-0 that a 20 second delay was ample, because any longer would give drug suspects time to flush evidence down the toilet.
The justices refused, however, to spell out exactly how long is reasonable in executing warrants for drugs or other contraband.
In the Banks’ case, officers knocked and announced themselves, then waited 15 seconds to 20 seconds before using a battering ram to break down the door.
Justice David H. Souter, writing for the court, said that because police believed there were drugs in his apartment, officers had more reason to rush.
“Police seeking a stolen piano may be able to spend more time to make sure they really need the battering ram,” Souter wrote.
‘A CLOSE CALL’
He said while “this call is a close one, 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.”
Smart drug dealers, he said, would keep their contraband near a commode or sink.
The Supreme Court has said that in most cases officers are required to knock and announce themselves, under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Souter said that generally courts have considered whether police moved too hastily “case by case, largely avoiding categories and protocols for searches.”
He said “this call is a close one” on whether Banks had a legitimate argument that police didn’t wait long enough for him to get to the door.
The Las Vegas police and federal officers found 11 ounces of crack cocaine and three guns during the raid. Banks served four years of an 11-year prison sentence before his conviction was overturned.
Justices reversed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Banks’ favor.
RULING IN WORKPLACE DRUG CASE
In another decision announced Tuesday, the court gave companies some leeway to refuse to rehire recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, but without the broad ruling that employers sought.
Justices ruled 7-0 that Hughes Missile Systems has a legitimate reason to refuse to rehire workers who break rules, including former employees with addictions.
But the court dodged the more significant question, whether the more than 5 million workers with substance abuse problems have workplace protection under the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act.
The court ordered the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the case of an Arizona missile plant worker who lost his job after testing positive for drugs.
Joel Hernandez, a 25-year employee, quit in 1991 after a test showed he had used cocaine. More than two years later, after completing drug and alcohol treatment, he was turned down when he tried to get rehired.
The appeals court ruled that a jury should decide if Hernandez was a discrimination victim under the 1990 disabilities law. The law specifically protects people who are clean after being treated for their addiction, but allows companies to discipline those who use substances on the job.
Two justices — Souter and Stephen Breyer — did not participate in the case.
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