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"Knock, Knock" or Not!

Police knocking down door.jpgOn Friday, February 3rd 2017 the Hickory Police Department was involved in a shooting in which one officer was shot and a citizen was killed. On February 11th the Hickory Daily Record reported that the encounter between the HPD and the citizen, involved a "No-Knock" search warrant for narcotics.

Anytime a person loses their life, it is a tragic event. In light of the circumstances surrounding the loss of life to a 33 year old man and the shooting of a Sergeant with HPD, I thought I would take the time to discuss "No-Knock" Search Warrants and their history in the Courts.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for william wetstone_hky record picture of scene.jpgThe Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees and protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the Government (i.e. Police). The idea that the Government "can not" unreasonably or arbitrarily intrude in the personal space, belongings, etc. of citizens was so important to our founding fathers that it was included in what is often referred to as the "Bill of Rights" (the first ten amendments to our US Constitution).

In order to obtain a search warrant, law enforcement must make a showing of probable cause to a judicial official. That showing must include specific facts from specific/reliable sources to show that; more likely than not, the items which law enforcement is looking for are located in the place to be searched and that those items themselves are illegal or they are necessary to (and associated with) law enforcement's investigation of some other illegal activity. Once an officer has met the threshold for probable cause, a search warrant is issued and law enforcement can then go execute (serve) that warrant.

Normally, officers are required to knock and announce their presence before opening a door of a house in order to enter & must give notice of his authority and purpose, and be refused admittance by the occupant (if there is an occupant). This requirement is twofold: First, it is to protect an individual's right to privacy in the home; Second, it is to protect officers themselves (who might be mistaken, upon unannounced intrusion into someone's home, as someone who had no right to be there). The interval of time an officer must wait between announcement and the entry depends on the circumstances of each case, but it should be a reasonable amount of time. One can imagine, if you were in your home and someone knocked at the front or back door, it would reasonably take you longer than a couple of seconds to get to the door and answer it. Other reasons for the "Knock" requirement is to prevent the needless destruction of property (i.e. the door that is being knocked down). Law Enforcement can also serve a warrant when no one is at home. There is no requirement that the resident be present when the search is performed. Certainly, in a situation in which Law Enforcement suspected that drugs were being "kept" at a particular residence, it would eliminate the amount of risk officers are subjected to if the home were searched after the home owner left the residence.

"No-Knock" warrants require a showing of "exigent circumstances" which include; 1. If the police believe announcing themselves before entering would present a threat to officer safety, 2. If they believe a suspect is particularly likely to destroy evidence (i.e. the evidence they are seeking to seize). These types of "beliefs" by Law Enforcement should be specifically set forth in the warrant and (most importantly) supported by the reliable and known information set forth in the warrant. For example, having security cameras (which are common for many businesses and homes) would not give rise to an exigent circumstance to justify a "No-Knock" warrant. Likewise, the fact that someone may have drugs in the home and a toilet to flush them down would not be an exigent circumstance.

A legal "No-Knock" raid can happen in one of two ways. Police can make the case for exigent circumstances to a judge, who then issues a "No-Knock" warrant (such was the case in Hickory, NC last Friday); or police can determine at the scene that the exigent circumstances exist and make the decision at the scene for a "No-Knock" raid on the spot. In this case, the courts will determine after the fact if the raid was legal.

Whether or not a "No-Knock" warrant should be issued is always a facts and circumstances analysis that a judge must weigh carefully before granting. There are some facts that are clear and not in dispute. The number of No-Knock raids has increased from approximately 3,000 in 1981 to more than 50,000 in 2005 nationwide.[1] In addition to guaranteeing destruction of some property (i.e. the door), No-Knock raids increase the level of confrontation and apprehension associated with such raids. Police are usually outfitted with military type weapons (i.e. assault rifles), bullet proof vests / protective helmets, flash bang grenades, etc.

While police can legally shoot a homeowner's dog when an officer fears for his/her life, there have been numerous cases in which family pets lacking the size, strength or demeanor to pose a substantial threat have been shot. In addition, when bullets are fired, there have been many situations in which innocent bystanders and adjacent homes have been struck with bullets.

In the case which occurred in Northwest Hickory last week, Keyona Walton, a neighbor of the home where the raid occurred, said she "had put her son on the school bus a few minutes earlier ...". The timing of such, "No-knock", raids as well as the location in which they are occurring (a residential neighborhood) are all factors that should be carefully and thoroughly considered by Law Enforcement and Judges before issuing such warrants.

While I would agree with our courts that "No-Knock" raids can in very limited situations; when specific, articulable, exigent circumstances exist, serve a purpose, I would question whether they are being used by Law Enforcement as the "norm" as opposed to the "limited exception". I would call on the Hickory Daily Record and our local television media to do an investigative report on the number of "No-Knock" warrants that have been issued by all Law Enforcement agencies in Catawba, Burke and Caldwell counties in the past 12 months and compare that number with the number of other "search warrants" issued which were not "No-Knock" during the same time period. What were the recurring reasons for the "No-Knock" warrants? What percentage of the time were these "No-Knock" warrants executed in residential neighborhoods? How often was someone (police or citizen) injured or killed during the execution of these warrants? These and other questions deserve answers.

The safety of our officers and our citizens is too important to allow these types of high confrontational searches to be the "norm" and not the "limited exception".


[1] Patrik Jonsson (November 29, 2006). "After Atlanta raid tragedy, new scrutiny of police tactics. Police are reviewing their use of 'no-knock' warrants after an octogenarian was killed after officers burst into her home."

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