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.
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