This Term’s Kelo Posted by: Dale Franks
on Thursday, April 06, 2006
This term, the Supreme Court will rule in perhaps the most important case since Kelo. The case is Hudson v. Michigan, and at stake is the legality of no-knock warrants. Radley Balko provides a roundup.
As the name indicates, a "no-knock" raid occurs when police forcibly enter a private residence without first knocking and announcing that they're the police. The tactic is appropriate in a few limited situations, such as when hostages or fugitives are involved, or where the suspect poses an immediate threat to community safety. But increasingly, this highly confrontational tactic is being used in less volatile situations, most commonly to serve routine search warrants for illegal drugs...
It's bad enough when the police serve a no-knock warrant at the wrong place. But this is not regular service of a warrant. No-knock raids are typically carried out by masked, heavily armed SWAT teams using paramilitary tactics more appropriate for the battlefield than the living room. In fact, the rise in no-knock warrants over the last 25 years neatly corresponds with the rise in the number and frequency of use of SWAT teams. Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, a widely cited expert on the "militarization" of domestic police departments, estimates that the number of SWAT team deployments has jumped from 3,000 a year in the early 1980s to more than 40,000 a year by the early 2000s.
Making no-knock warrants even more disturbing is the rising number of mistaken warrant services on innocent people, who don't always survive the experience.
These raids are often launched on tips from notoriously unreliable confidential informants. Rubber-stamp judges, dicey informants, and aggressive policing have thus given rise to the countless examples of "wrong door" raids we read about in the news. In fact, there's a disturbingly long list of completely innocent people who've been killed in "wrong door" raids, including New York City worker Alberta Spruill, Boston minister Accelyne Williams, and a Mexican immigrant in Denver named Ismael Mena.
Police, of course, defend no-knock warrants on the grounds of officer safety. When the safety of law-abiding members of the public is compromised, however, they tend to be a bit more cavalier.
In 1999, for example, the assistant police chief of El Monte, Calif., explained his department's preferred procedure to the Los Angeles Times: "We do bang on the door and make an announcement—'It's the police'—but it kind of runs together. If you're sitting on the couch, it would be difficult to get to the door before they knock it down."
That comment came in a story about a mistaken raid in which Mario Paz, an innocent man, was shot dead by a raiding SWAT team when he mistook them for criminal intruders and reached for a gun to defend himself.
I guess officer safety is paramount. That's funny; I thought public safety was supposed to be paramount. That's what they said when I went through the Academy in 1984. Apparently, things have changed since then.
One of the changes has been that SWAT Teams are now routinely used to serve warrants on suspected drug dealers. Our foolish war on drugs has led directly to an increasing militarization of the police, and a consequent decrease in concern for public safety and 4th Amendment rights.
Unless the Court lays down a bright-line rule that limits no-knock warrants to only the most hazardous warrant service, the danger to law-abiding citizens from an increasingly arrogant and militarized mode of policing will only increase.
The police are public servants, doing a dangerous job. I appreciate that fact, having worked as a sworn officer in both military and civilian law enforcement. But the bottom line is that the police are our servants, not our masters, and any mode of policing that puts law abiding citizens at greater risk is intolerable, even if the price is some increase in the risk police officers face.
Don’t get too hopeful, Dale. I’ve just finished a very depressing study of the Court’s opinions in Vernonia and Earls, two cases which effectively eliminated students’ Fourth Amendment rights in the name of the righteous cause of the War on Drugs™. My personal analysis of it leads me to believe that most of the current Justices will approve whatever it takes, even if the action approved is ineffective and merely symbolic, as long as it is with the purpose of "fighting drugs." (Actually, that’s not 100% true. They will not approve random testing of themselves, or those like them. See Chandler v. Miller.) It’s such a compelling interest, don’t you know? As Radley stated, these no-knock warrants are being used more and more in drug-related actions, ostensibly because of the "well-known danger" that suspects will dispose of the drugs. Throw the officer safety thing in there, and it’s a loser of an argument, unfortunately, at least with this current Court.
This seems like a good example of the "if I had a hammer" theory. Let’s say you’re a police chief. Your resources overall are stretched thin, but you also have this extremely expensive SWAT team that seems underutilized. What do you do? You find new uses for that SWAT team, of course! You use them in situations where they’re really not appropriate, just because they’re there. Maybe you make up some excuse about the need to keep them in practice, but the real motivation has nothing to do with serving the public.
We need about one tenth as many SWAT teams as we actually have in this country, if that. Instead of cooperating and sharing resources, police departments use them (along with high-tech "non-lethal" weaponry that actually does kill people) as a way to compete with one another for prestige and with other city departments for funds. This might be a case where working to preserve people’s rights also preserves their pocketbooks.