If a cop has a warrant to search your house, how long should he wait after knocking and receiving no answer before walking or breaking in?
Utah law only says the officer should wait a "reasonable" length of time.But what's reasonable? A few seconds? A minute?
State officials want the Utah Supreme Court to decide how long a police officer must wait before entering a person's apartment to conduct an authorized search. In some cases, that means kicking in the door.
Assistant Utah Attorney General David Thompson urged the justices this week to help police agencies by clarifying the law.
The length of time an officer waits is important, because some federal judges have ruled that officers who don't wait long enough are violating a person's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, Thompson told the justices.
But some officers who work with the Metro Narcotics Strike Force said it would be a mistake if the courts tell them exactly how long they must wait after knocking before they have an option of forcing entry.
Each case has entirely different circumstances, said Salt Lake Police Lt. Dick Johnson.
"If the Supreme Court comes out and said, you have 20 seconds or 30 seconds, well, it's too complex an issue to have that simple of an answer," he said.
If officers are granted a "no-knock" warrant, they are allowed to break into a house without knocking. But regular search warrants (those in question) require police to knock, identify themselves and their purpose, and wait a reasonable amount of time before entering if no one responds.
Some federal judges have concluded that 20 seconds gives someone enough time to open their door to police, Thompson said. After 20 seconds, police can go ahead and enter, according to some rulings.
Thompson asked the justices for a Utah ruling on the matter during oral arguments in accused bomber Steve Thurman's appeal before the court. Thurman is seeking to have evidence federal agents obtained in a search of his apartment and storage unit suppressed because the agents illegally entered Thurman's apartment.
Third District Judge Michael Murphy earlier ruled that although officers broke the law by failing to identify themselves before kicking in Thurman's door, the evidence was still admissible.
Thurman appealed the latter part of Murphy's ruling to the high court.
Thompson used the Thurman case to ask for a definitive ruling on how long police should wait before entering a person's home with a search warrant.
In his opinion, Murphy noted that the agents "made a mere perfunctory knock and seconds later made a forced entry."
"I read that to suggest the officers had not waited long enough between their knock and their entry (into Thurman's apartment)," Thompson said in a later interview.
No previous case "has made clear to the officer just how long he needs to wait in this situation," Thompson said. Guidance from the high court "would certainly help them," Thompson said.
But officers think their own judgment is the best guidance they could have.
"There are times when 60 seconds isn't long enough," Johnson explained. "There are cases when 10 seconds may be too long. It depends on what you hear in the house."
Officers are trained to listen for signs inside the home after knocking on the door with a search warrant. Hearing five sets of feet running away from the door would call for a different action than hearing someone walking toward the door, for example.
Hearing a toilet flush is another warning sign - particularly when officers are there to search for drugs.
"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to understand what's going on then," Johnson said.
But if the search warrant is issued because officers are looking for stolen televisions, the situation is again different.
The lieutenant said officers generally believe they ought to err on the side of being conservative when they make such decisions about entry. But each case has widely varied circumstances and one blanket time rule would hinder their efforts.
Officers' safety is also a factor.
The Supreme Court has taken the matter under advisement.