Wilson v. Arkansas

Decision Date22 May 1995
Docket Number945707
Citation115 S.Ct. 1914,514 U.S. 927,131 L.Ed.2d 976
PartiesSharlene WILSON, Petitioner v. ARKANSAS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus *

Petitioner was convicted on state-law drug charges after the Arkansas trial court denied her evidence-suppression motion, in which she asserted that the search of her home was invalid because, inter alia, the police had violated the common-law principle requiring them to announce their presence and authority before entering. The State Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting petitioner's argument that the common-law "knock and announce" principle is required by the Fourth Amendment.

Held: The common-law knock-and-announce principle forms a part of the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry. Pp. __.

(a) 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 reason ableness of an unannounced entry. For now, this Court leaves to the lower courts the task of determining such relevant countervailing factors. Pp. __.

(c) 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. P. 10.

317 Ark. 548, 878 S.W.2d 755, reversed and remanded.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

John Wesley Hall, Jr., appointed by this Court, Little Rock, AR, for petitioner.

J. Winston Bryant, Little Rock, AR, for respondent.

Michael R. Dreeben, Washington, DC, for the U.S. as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court.

Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

At the time of the framing, the common law of search and seizure recognized a law enforcement officer's authority to break open the doors of a dwelling, but generally indicated that he first ought to announce his presence and authority. In this case, we hold that this common-law "knock and announce" principle forms a part of the reasonableness inquiry under the Fourth Amendment.


During November and December 1992, petitioner Sharlene Wilson made a series of narcotics sales to an informant acting at the direction of the Arkansas State Police. In late November, the informant purchased marijuana and methamphetamine at the home that petitioner shared with Bryson Jacobs. On December 30, the informant telephoned petitioner at her home and arranged to meet her at a local store to buy some marijuana. According to testimony presented below, petitioner produced a semiautomatic pistol at this meeting and waved it in the informant's face, threatening to kill her if she turned out to be working for the police. Petitioner then sold the informant a bag of marijuana.

The next day, police officers applied for and obtained warrants to search petitioner's home and to arrest both petitioner and Jacobs. Affidavits filed in support of the warrants set forth the details of the narcotics transactions and stated that Jacobs had previously been convicted of arson and firebombing. The search was conducted later that afternoon. Police officers found the main door to petitioner's home open. While opening an unlocked screen door and entering the residence, they identified themselves as police officers and stated that they had a warrant. Once inside the home, the officers seized marijuana, methamphetamine, valium, narcotics paraphernalia, a gun, and ammunition. They also found petitioner in the bathroom, flushing marijuana down the toilet. Petitioner and Jacobs were arrested and charged with delivery of marijuana, delivery of methamphetamine, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of marijuana.

Before trial, petitioner filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search. Petitioner asserted that the search was invalid on various grounds, including that the officers had failed to "knock and announce" before entering her home. 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. 317 Ark. 548, 878 S.W.2d 755 (1994). The court noted that "the officers entered the home while they were identifying themselves," but it rejected petitioner's argument that "the Fourth Amendment requires officers to knock and announce prior to entering the residence." Id., at 553, 878 S.W.2d, at 758 (emphasis added). Finding "no authority for [petitioner's] theory that the knock and announce principle is required by the Fourth Amendment," the court concluded that neither Arkansas law nor the Fourth Amendment required suppression of the evidence. Ibid.

We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict among the lower courts as to whether the common-law knock-and-announce principle forms a part of the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry.1 513 U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 571, 130 L.Ed.2d 488 (1994). We hold that it does, and accordingly reverse and remand.


The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." In evaluating the scope of this right, we have looked to the traditional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures afforded by the common law at the time of the framing. See California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 624, 111 S.Ct. 1547, 1549-50, 113 L.Ed.2d 690 (1991); United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 418-420, 96 S.Ct. 820, 825-26, 46 L.Ed.2d 598 (1976); Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 149, 45 S.Ct. 280, 283-84, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925). "Although the underlying command of the Fourth Amendment is always that searches and seizures be reasonable," New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 337, 105 S.Ct. 733, 740, 83 L.Ed.2d 720 (1985), our effort to give content to this term may be guided by the meaning ascribed to it by the Framers of the Amendment. An examination of the common law of search and seizure leaves no doubt that the reasonableness of a search of a dwelling may depend in part on whether law enforcement officers announced their presence and authority prior to entering.

Although the common law generally protected a man's house as "his castle of defense and asylum," 3 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *288 (hereinafter Blackstone), common-law courts long have held that "when the King is party, the sheriff (if the doors be not open) may break the party's house, either to arrest him, or to do other execution of the K[ing]'s process, if otherwise he cannot enter." Semayne's Case, 5 Co. Rep. 91a, 91b, 77 Eng.Rep. 194, 195 (K.B.1603). To this rule, however, common-law courts appended an important qualification:

"But before he breaks it, he ought to signify the cause of his coming, and to make request to open doors . . ., for the law without a default in the owner abhors the destruction or breaking of any house (which is for the habitation and safety of man) by which great damage and inconvenience might ensue to the party, when no default is in him; for perhaps he did not know of the process, of which, if he had notice, it is to be presumed that he would obey it. . . ." Ibid., 77 Eng.Rep., at 195-196.

See also Case of Richard Curtis, Fost. 135, 137, 168 Eng.Rep. 67, 68 (Crown 1757) ("[N]o precise form of words is required in a case of this kind. It is sufficient that the party hath notice, that the officer cometh not as a mere trespasser, but claiming to act under a proper authority . . ."); Lee v. Gansell, Lofft 374, 381-382, 98 Eng.Rep. 700, 705 (K.B.1774) ("[A]s to the outer door, the law is now clearly taken" that it is privileged; but the door may be broken "when the due notification and demand has been made and refused").2

Several prominent founding-era commentators agreed on this basic principle. According to Sir Matthew Hale, the "constant practice" at common law was that "the officer may break open the door, if he be sure the offender is there, if after acquainting them of the business, and demanding the prisoner, he refuses to open the door." See 1 M. Hale, Pleas of the Crown *582. William Hawkins propounded a similar principle: "the law doth never allow" an officer to break open the door of a dwelling "but in cases of necessity," that is, unless he "first signify to those in the house the cause of his coming, and request them to give him admittance." 2 W. Hawkins, Pleas of the Crown, ch. 14, § 1, p. 138 (6th ed. 1787). Sir William Blackstone stated simply that the sheriff may "justify breaking open doors, if the possession be...

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