How dangerous does a situation have to be before police can enter your home without a warrant?

How crazy do you have to be to


Your Meth Lab, Your Gun, Your Supreme Court, and the Fourth Amendment


How dangerous does a situation have to be before police can enter your home without a warrant?

How crazy do you have to be to steal a 1,000 gallon tanker full of a toxic chemical and just chill with it in your yard? Or to pick up your gun while your house is surrounded by a drug task force --drug task forces are not known for their restraint--who just found said tanker?

And isn't it bizarre that the Republican-backed Supreme Court justices take some of the most law-and-order-unfriendly stands?

Those are just a few of the questions raised in State v. Smith, a state Supreme Court decision that came down this morning.

The case went down like this:

The Tri-City Drug Task Force received a tip that a stolen 1,000 gallon tanker carrying anhydrous ammonia, a highly toxic chemical used in agriculture, was sitting on a Kennewick property that consisted of "a fenced acre of land containing a [reportedly vacant] two-story house, a shed, and several junk cars."

The cops entered the property and, wearing protective gear, made sure the tanker wasn't leaking. They then announced themselves to the house and began scoping it out. One officer noticed what appeared to be a rifle lying on the ground. Two people, Brent Smith and Kimberly

Breur, came out of the house and were arrested, but police could no longer see the gun through the window.

Smith and Breuer said there were no more people inside, but the police went in to make sure there was no one with a gun waiting to shoot them or the tanker. They found the gun in the attic, and later got a warrant for the house and, not surprisingly, found a meth lab inside.

Smith protested that, per the Fourth Amendment, the officers had no right to enter the house without a warrant. Thus, the evidence from the second search should be dismissed because of the "fruit of a poisonous tree" doctrine, which holds that any evidence that follows an initial illegal search is invalid.

The majority, in a decision penned by Susan Owens, ruled that the police conduct fell under the "exigent circumstances" exception to the Fourth Amendment, which basically means that the police faced a danger so imminent they didn't need to get a warrant.

The dissent was written by none other than Richard Sanders, the libertarian justice who yelled "tyrant" at former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey. He was joined by Jim Johnson, the only justice the BIAW has managed to get elected, and Gerry Alexander, whom they tried (and failed) to defeat. Sanders argued that the police had no reason to think there was someone inside with a gun, 

An oddity of judicial races in this state is that the emphasis on property rights frequently leads traditionally Republican organizations to endorse candidates whose criminal justice rulings are far from traditionally Republican, at least in the modern, "tough on crime" sense. (Read more on our state's ideologically bizarre and frequently vapid judicial elections in this SW cover story.) It's something to keep in mind the next time you fill out your ballot. The sanctity of your home (or your meth lab) and/or the safety of your community may depend on it.

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