What’s the problem with ‘no-knock’ searches? They tend to get people killed



Last week, we were asking how police found themselves in the bedroom of a naked couple in Lancaster, Calif., in 2001, guns drawn.

This led to a discussion of the problem with “no-knock” — or even “shout-once-and-storm-in” — search warrants.

On Nov. 21 of last year, Atlanta police planted marijuana on Fabian Sheats, a “suspected street dealer.” They told Sheats they would let him go if he “gave them something.” Sheats obligingly lied that he had spotted a kilogram of cocaine nearby, giving them the address of the elderly spinster Miss Kathryn Johnston, who neither used nor dealt drugs, but who did live in fear of break-ins in her crime-infested neighborhood.

Police then lied to a judge, claiming they had actually purchased drugs at the Johnston house. They acquired one of those once-rare “no-knock” warrants, and violently battered down the reinforced metal door of a private home where there were no drugs.

Miss Johnston fired a warning shot at the unknown people busting down her door. That bullet lodged in the roof of her porch, injuring no one. Police replied by firing 39 rounds at her, hitting her five times, and wounding each other with another five rounds — though they lied and said they’d been shot by Miss Johnston.

They then handcuffed the old woman as she bled to death on the floor and searched her house. Finding no drugs, they planted three bags of marijuana.

The next day, the cops picked up one Alex White, an informant, advising him that they needed him to lie, saying that he had purchased cocaine at Johnston’s house. White refused, managed to escape and went to the media with the story.

Last month, two of those officers pleaded guilty to manslaughter — deals that helped them escape murder charges — and now face more than 10 years in prison, after authorities demonstrated the officers lied to get their warrant.

Greg Jones of the Atlanta FBI office said at a news conference that the FBI is investigating “additional allegations of corruption that Atlanta police officers may have engaged in similar conduct.”

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he has started to review hundreds of other cases involving officers Jason Smith and Gregg Junnier; convictions may be overturned. Last week, Police Chief Richard Pennington transferred his entire narcotics squad to other duties, contending his department would review its policy on “no-knock” warrants and its use of confidential informants.

That “review” and seven bucks will get you a fancy cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Officer Smith’s attorney, John Garland, said his client “was trained to lie by fellow officers to establish probable cause.”

Meantime, a black man named Cory Maye was still sitting on death row in Mississippi, the last I heard, because he heard men trying to break into his Prentiss, Miss., home late at night in December 2001, where he was alone with his 18-month-old daughter. Mr. Maye, who had no criminal record, got the child down onto the floor and lay down beside her to protect her. When one of the men finally broke into the bedroom, Cory Maye shot and killed him.

The man was hit in the abdomen, just below his bulletproof vest, and died a short time later. It turns out the man who had failed to knock and identify himself before breaking in was a cop, who was really after suspects in the other half of the duplex where Cory Maye lived.

Turns out the cop was the white son of the white chief of police. An all-white jury sentenced Mr. Maye, who is black, to death for exercising his right to defend his locked home and family against violent invasion by unknown intruders.

The all-white jury took only a few hours to do so, at least one juror explaining he wanted to get home for supper.

The list of such abuses goes on and on — without even mentioning the dozens of innocent women and children who eventually died thanks to the bungled and totally unnecessary 1993 BATF “incredibly-no-knock” raid on the Branch Davidian Church in Waco, Texas, whose residents (including Wayne Martin, a black Harvard Law School graduate) had previously demonstrated they would cheerfully cooperate with any law enforcement officer who merely knocked at the door and asked to see their perfectly legal guns.

(At Waco, the charging agents shot a dog and her puppies in their outdoor pen before they even got to the front door. Agents in National Guard helicopters — their ban from such actions on U.S. soil bypassed by the simple expedient of filling out sworn and thoroughly laughable affidavits claiming there was a “meth lab” inside a Christian church full of women and children — shot down through the roof, killing a nursing mother inside as her infant played by her bedside. When the unarmed Rev. David Koresh opened the front door to say, “Wait a minute, there are women and children here. Let’s talk,” agents fired at him, hitting his unarmed father-in-law, who stood behind him. Later, agents couldn’t even remember who carried the warrant. No one even claimed they tried to “serve” it.)

For a partial rundown, see “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America” by Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko (www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6476) along with the accompanying “map of botched paramilitary raids” at http://www.cato.org/raidmap/

Charles P. Garcia, in “The Knock and Announce Rule: A New Approach to the Destruction-of-Evidence Exception” (1993), reports: “In 1970, the Nixon administration declared a ‘War on Drugs.’ The Justice Department urged Congress to enact a comprehensive anti-drug strategy and suggested that a general ‘no-knock’ provision could constitutionally be added to aid in enforcement. …

“The ‘no-knock’ experience lasted four years. … During the four-year period when ‘no-knock’ warrants were issued, horror stories were legion. … In an exhaustive eight-week investigation by The New York Times, consisting of interviews with victims of ‘no-knock’ raids, reporters found that ‘Innocent Americans around the country have been subject to dozens of mistaken, violent and often illegal police raids by local, state and federal narcotics agents in search of illicit drugs and their dealers.’

“In Florida, complaints of police harassment during drug searches were so overwhelming that Legal Services of Greater Miami was unable to handle the caseload. In Virginia, a terror-stricken woman, a previous burglary victim, shot and killed a young police officer executing a ‘no-knock’ warrant as he burst into her bedroom in the middle of the night.”

(Astonishingly, although that officer was also the son of the local police chief, no prosecution resulted, so far as I’ve been able to learn. The old woman, waiting terrified behind her closed bedroom door, had repeatedly called out, “Who’s in my house?” As with Chief Pennington in Atlanta, the bereaved Virginia chief said he would “review” his department’s use of no-knock warrants.)

“In California,” Mr. Garcia continues, “one father was shot through the head as he sat in a living room cradling his infant son. Both the woman and the man were totally innocent of any wrongdoing. The federal ‘no-knock’ warrants were so disruptive that Congress repealed them four years later … once again making ‘no-knock’ searches illegal under the federal ‘knock-and-announce’ rule.”

So, what were those Lancaster, Calif., cops doing in that bedroom, forcing Max Rettele and Judy Sadler to crawl out of bed naked, pointing guns at their heads and screaming and not allowing them even to grab a sheet or blanket to cover their nakedness?

If you or I tried this, we’d be committing the crime of “assault.” Officers’ weapons have been known to suffer “negligent discharges” during such adrenalin surges. Why is it now routine to place citizens at such a risk during every search?

The African-American suspects — who had moved — were sought on suspicion of identity theft, not a violent crime. There was no suspected “stash” that could be flushed down a toilet.

So why didn’t police knock at that door at suppertime, allowing a clothed couple to come to the door and calmly read their warrant before inviting police in to look around and confirm that the three African-Americans that police sought no longer lived there?

“While the facts in this case are unusual, not to say humorous,” chuckled the reliably pro-police-state Los Angeles Times in an editorial last week, “the bottom line is important: Even when police follow the law, pursuit of the guilty will sometimes inconvenience — and embarrass — the innocent.”

Oh, ha ha. Naked in their own bedroom. A little embarrassment. A little inconvenience. Chuckle, chuckle.

And if Max Rettele and Judy Sadler had been armed? If they had opened fire on those gun-brandishing home invaders — as the terrified innocent victims Kathryn Johnston and Cory Maye did? If both that innocent couple and one or two pumped-up Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies had ended up dead on the bedroom floor that early morning, would the Times still find it all so amusing?

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of the novel “The Black Arrow.” See http://www.LibertyBookShop.us.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. The no-knock is very disturbing, but I understand where those who fear that they are being robbed are coming from. Here in Calhoun this has happened to more the just a few people in the last 6 months. Myself, it has happened to. Next time they better knock!

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