No-knock warrants: Valuable tool in need of reform?

Moderated by Rick Badie

No-knock warrants in Georgia have come under intense scrutiny in light of a Habersham County incident in which a 19-month-old toddler was severely injured in a botched drug raid. Today, a Middle Georgia law enforcement veteran writes that such warrants serve a purpose in the apprehension of bad guys, while a state legislator says he plans to draft a bill that limits their use. The other guest writer questions what he calls the “militarization” of police departments.

Reform for no-knock warrants

By Vincent Fort

What happened May 28 to 19-month-old Boukkan Phonesavanh did not have to happen. At about 2:30 a.m., a Habersham County SWAT team conducted a military raid and served a no-knock warrant at the house where the toddler lived with his mother, father and three siblings. Supposedly a drug dealer, armed guards, drugs and weapons were at the house. None were found.

“Bou Bou” was critically injured by a flash-bang grenade thrown into the playpen where he slept. He has undergone surgery and is in an induced coma facing more surgeries. Contrary to what the Habersham County sheriff has said, there was evidence of the presence of children, including a minivan with four car seats.

In 2007, the murder of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police officers resulted in a movement demanding reforms of no-knock warrants. There had been several instances in Riverdale, Polk and Gwinnett counties and Stockbridge of botched no-knock raids, some resulting in deaths and injuries.

In the 1980s, there were about 3,000 SWAT raids per year. Now, there are at least 40,000 SWAT raids in the United States every year. Of these, as many as 80 percent are no-knock raids. This militarization of police puts at risk our Fourth Amendment protections against unconstitutional searches and searches.

I introduced bipartisan Senate Bill 259 to establish criteria for no-knock warrants. The co-author of the bill was Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamaugua. The bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House by opposition from law enforcement. If that bill had become law, “Bou Bou” might not be in the hospital now on the cusp of death.

The General Assembly should use the Habersham County botched raid as an opportunity to pass comprehensive legislation restricting the use of no-knock warrants. Right now, case law governs how no-knock warrants are governed. Legislation should establish criteria for the issuance of no-knock warrants, require the collection of data and mandate protocols and training for serving such warrants.

The priority in any legislation has to be establishing criteria for a judge’s issuance of a no-knock warrant. Presently, the absence of judicial criteria increases the possibility of abuse. A judge should make sure the evidence presented by law enforcement at least rises to the level of probable cause.

Additionally, the public should know the number of no-warrants issued, injuries and deaths incurred, and whether the facts of the warrant were borne out by what was recovered in the raid.

The coalition coming together on this issue may be unlike any other seen before. Blacks and whites; rural, urban and suburban residents; Republicans, Democrats, independents and tea party members; conservatives and progressives, and the right and left wing are all demanding no-knock warrant reforms.

The time has come.

Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat, represents District 39.

No-knock warrants a valuable tool

By Wesley E. Nunn

I have served in law enforcement for more than 40 years, most of that in narcotics investigations. During that time, I have been on an extensive number of search warrants. Most of those search warrants did not contain the no-knock search clause. I have been on a handful of search warrants that did.

As commander of a drug task force in Middle Georgia, I have had my agents include this clause only a few times. This was applied for by advising the judge of the possible danger to law enforcement or the destruction of evidence. This information is gained throughan investigation that gives us information and insight on how drug dealers handle their transactions. Throughout my career, it has been alarming for me to see the increase in the number of weapons found during the execution of search warrants as well as in the number of individuals destroying evidence before we can reach it.

Just last month, a search warrant executed by my office found a drug dealer had drugs sitting on the back of a toilet, ready to be destroyed before law enforcement could enter the residence. After reading the backgrounds of some individuals about to be searched, I am alarmed and very apprehensive at the potential threat to those I supervise as well as to other law enforcement personnel. I know what could happen if we find drugs on people who are, most of the time, already on state or federal probation or parole and who know they will go back to prison if arrested again.Recently, our office executed a no-knock search warrant on a person who had been arrested 23 times in Baldwin County. The location and timing of this warrant was critical for our agency to gain advantage on a habitual violator who obviously has no respect for the law, and to find evidence that he would not hesitate to use force to conceal or destroy. The no-knock search warrant is a valuable tool in this type of situation.

To obtain such a warrant, the officer has to be able to articulate to a judge why he or she would want this clause in a search warrant. Today, law enforcement finds there is a great deal of cash and drugs being stored that individuals will go to great lengths to protect. If I deem a no-knock search warrant is needed, but is too risky for my office to execute, I can reach out to teams trained and equipped to execute what I would describe as a high-risk search warrant.

A no-knock clause is something our office uses very seldom. But if it is used, it is highly researched and discussed prior to its use.

Wesley E. Nunn is president of the Georgia Narcotics Officers Association and commander of the Ocmulgee Drug Task Force.

Change no-knock warrant policy

By Robert P. Cady

Aren’t we missing the point as it relates to the botched police raid that severely injured a child?

The focus seems to be on whether the officers knew there were children in the house, and whether they followed proper procedure for a no-knock raid. Isn’t anyone asking the question of why we call out an army, endanger homeowners, destroy property and emulate the secret police of a no-name country to corral someone accused of misdemeanor drug use or drug distribution? What has happened to our sense of proportion?

We treat drug crimes now as if we are capturing a modern John Dillinger, not a person who has run afoul of substance abuse. Our SWAT teams look and act like military forces and are becoming armed with equipment used by the military to attack insurgent strongholds.

And what about this issue of the “tipster”? What gives this person, often a felon himself, the power to instigate such a devastating invasion? It seems there are enough people willing to provide wrong information to get even or who are simply misguided, regardless if they are a paid informant. What makes their word sacrosanct?

Yes, I understand a judge must issue the proper authorization; but I also understand that judges favor the police who can make a pretty good story about why the raid is necessary.

Now, before you start on me as a roaring liberal, I support the police and realize they have a tough job. They need body armor, automatic weapons, grenades and the like to subdue the bad guys. I don’t want them to take risks and perhaps get hurt.

However, this cultural need we have to punish, punish, punish rather than rehabilitate seems to have morphed into a take-no-prisoners mentality regardless of the transgression. This is frankly scary. Life is suddenly imitating blood-curdling action movies where Darth Vader-like storm troopers attack the good guys.

Perhaps this exaggeration will make a point.

We need to take a closer look at no-knock and make some changes to protect the citizens involved and the reputation of our hard-working police.

Robert P. Cady lives in Kennesaw.

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