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Court: Drug Suspects On The Clock

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.

The Supreme Court used his case to clarify how long police must wait before breaking into a home to serve a warrant. The court ruled 9-0 that if police had waited any longer than 20 seconds, a drug suspect could be flushing evidence down the toilet.

"The law enforcement community was hoping for a ruling like this; a ruling that gives the police a little more guidance about how long they must wait after knocking to forcibly enter a suspect's home," said Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "The decision doesn't mean that the police must always wait exactly 20 seconds but that time frame now becomes a parameter that the cops must at least be aware of in these sorts of situations."

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.

The court refused, however, to spell out how long is reasonable in executing warrants for drugs or other illegal contraband.

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.

The appeals court had said that officers should wait "a significant amount of time" before making a non-forced entry, and a "more substantial amount of time" between knock and entry if property would be destroyed.

Souter said that the appeals court was wrong to set up a multipart scheme for reviewing knock-and-announce cases.

"This isn't a blanket rule for all cases for all time," cautions Cohen. "We are going to continue to see these sorts of cases before the Supreme Court precisely because the facts of each of them are so unique. Souter said as much when he cautioned that the decision in this case doesn't mean that the Court would apply the new 20-second rule to all drug searches."

The case is United States v. Banks, 02-473.