Wilson v. Arkansas
Decided on May 22, 1995; 514 US 927

 4th Amendment case about "knock and announce" police procedure


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (drugs), 4th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the Fourth Amendment's reasonable search and seizure clause require police officers to knock and announce their presence before entering a private residence?

A. Background:

In 1992, Sharlene Wilson sold illicit narcotics to undercover agents of the Arkansas state police. Police officers then obtained a warrant to search Ms. Wilson's home and arrest her. When the police arrived, they found the main door to Ms. Wilson's house open. The officers opened the unlocked screen door and walked in, identified themselves as police officers, and said that they had a warrant. Ms. Wilson's attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search, claiming it was invalid on the grounds that the officers had failed to "knock and announce" before entering.

The trial court summarily denied the suppression motion. After a jury trial, petitioner was convicted of all charges and sentenced to 32 years in prison.

The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed petitioner's conviction on appeal.
The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
John Wesley Hall, Jr., argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

Winston Bryant, Attorney General of Arkansas, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the briefs were Kent G. Holt, Vada Berger, and David R. Raupp, Assistant Attorneys General, and Andrew D. Leipold.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Tracey Maclin, Steven R. Shapiro, and Ephraim Margolin filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Harris, Paul A. Engelmayer, and Deborah Watson.

Additional briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of California et al. by Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, Richard Rochman, Assistant Attorney General, and Eleni M. Constantine, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Grant Woods of Arizona, Gale A. Norton of Colorado, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, Margery S. Bronster of Hawaii, Alan G. Lance of Idaho, Jim Ryan of Illinois, Tom Miller of Iowa, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, Chris Gorman of Kentucky, Andrew Ketterer of Maine, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., of Maryland, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Jeremiah W. "Jay" Nixon of Missouri, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, Deborah T. Poritz of New Jersey, Dennis C. Vacco of New York, Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, Betty Montgomery of Ohio, Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon, Jeffrey B. Pine of Rhode Island, Charlie Condon of South Carolina, Mark Bennett of South Dakota, Dan Morales of Texas, Jan Graham of Utah, Jeffrey L. Amestoy of Vermont, and James S. Gilmore III of Virginia; for Wayne County, Michigan, by John D. O'Hair and Timothy A. Baughman; and for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al. by Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W. Schmidt, James P. Manak, Richard M. Weintraub, Robert L. Deschamps, and Bernard J. Farber.

"An officer's unannounced entry into a home might, in some circumstances, be unreasonable under the Amendment. In evaluating the scope of the constitutional right to be secure in one's house, this Court has looked to the traditional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures afforded by the common law at the time of the framing. Given the longstanding common-law endorsement of the practice of announcement, and the wealth of founding-era commentaries, constitutional provisions, statutes, and cases espousing or supporting the knock-and-announce principle, this Court has little doubt that the Amendment's Framers thought that whether officers announced their presence and authority before entering a dwelling was among the factors to be considered in assessing a search's reasonableness. Nevertheless, the common-law principle was never stated as an inflexible rule requiring announcement under all circumstances. Countervailing law enforcement interests - including, e.g., the threat of physical harm to police, the fact that an officer is pursuing a recently escaped arrestee, and the existence of reason to believe that evidence would likely be destroyed if advance notice were given - may establish the reasonableness of an unannounced entry. For now, this Court leaves to the lower courts the task of determining such relevant countervailing factors...

Respondent's asserted reasons for affirming the judgment below - that the police reasonably believed that a prior announcement would have placed them in peril and would have produced an unreasonable risk that petitioner would destroy easily disposable narcotics evidence - may well provide the necessary justification for the unannounced entry in this case. The case is remanded to allow the state courts to make the reasonableness determination in the first instance.

Held: reversed and remanded."
Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Thomas, C.  Pro  (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Souter, D.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion) 

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the lower court in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.