In 2014, a SWAT team executing a no-knock warrant in Georgia, threw a flash-bang grenade that landed in a child’s playpen causing blast injuries to the child’s face and chest. The child’s nose was separated from the underlying bone. The child was placed in a medically-induced coma and underwent several complex surgeries. The county ended up paying $3.6 million to settle the case. The raid yielded no drugs, no drug dealer, and no weapons.
Fast forward to today and the name Breonna Taylor is being chanted by protesters across the country seeking police reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s unjustifiable death in police custody. Breonna was killed during the execution of a no-knock warrant in Kentucky after police smashed down the front door and her boyfriend opened fire, not knowing who the intruders were. Again, no drugs were found and a lawsuit was filed.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which applies to the states under the Supreme Court’s incorporation doctrine, is silent on the question of whether law enforcement officers must announce their identity and purpose when executing search warrants based on probable cause.
In 1958 [Miller v. U.S.], the Supreme Court ruled the police must give notice before making a forced entry, but created an exception in 1995 to prevent the destruction of evidence [Wilson v. Arkansas]. Federal law enforcement must generally knock-and-announce under the terms of a federal statute, although there are some exceptions in that law [18 U.S.C § 3109].
The use of no-knock warrants has substantially increased, from 1,500 a year in the 1980s to 45,000 in 2010 by one estimate. Thirty-one civilians and eight officers died during the execution of no-knock warrants from 2010 to 2016. There have been at least seven settlements of a million dollars or more. It’s been estimated that 42 percent of SWAT warrants are executed on blacks and another 12 percent on Hispanics. They may have higher crime rates, but you can see how this is causing resentment and racial animus.
Oregon state law bans no-knock warrants and the Florida Supreme Court invalidated them in that state. Thirteen states specifically allow no-knock warrants and 20 more routinely grant them.
The Louisville, Kentucky city council just passed ‘Breonna’s Law’ banning no-knock warrants. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced a bill to prohibit federal law enforcement and local police that receive federal funding from using them. House Democrats propose to ban no-knock warrants in drug cases.
Law and order is one thing. Being stupid about it is another. The question is whether, in light of all the ruinous consequences, the use of no-knock warrants is an indispensable tool in fighting crime. One former police chief-turned-consultant is of the opinion that, if a quantity of drugs is so small it can be flushed down the toilet if police announce themselves, then it’s not worth getting a warrant in the first place. However, fentanyl might change the analysis. Minute quantities are now routinely cut into other drugs which can be sold for millions of dollars. I’m not an illicit drug expert - I don’t even play one on TV - but a thoroughly reasoned position on no-knock warrants might be harder to develop than critics and protesters want to believe.