Supporters of efforts to restrict no-knock raids by police have cheered legislation claiming to do of late. Unfortunately, many of the purported reforms passed by state legislatures over the last few years won’t change anything in practice or effect.
When executing no-knock warrants, police officers enter homes and businesses without knocking or announcing their presence beforehand. Supporters of no-knock raids say the element of surprise increases officer safety and prevents suspects from destroying evidence.
But the chaos inside a home created by police barging in, often in the middle of the night, frequently leads to unnecessary violence and harm to innocent people.
A robust reform movement grew out a number of high-profile cases. But thanks to Supreme Court opinions and the incorporation doctrine, there is very little victims of no-knock raids can do from within the current legal system. This fact led to a movement to ban or limit no-knock raids at the state level.
Some states, including Washington, Tennessee and Connecticut, effectively banned no-knock warrants. But many of the other so-called “state reforms” have big loopholes that render them virtually meaningless in practice.
A bill recently signed into law in Colorado is a good example.
Senate Bill 254 (SB254) purports to limit no-knock raids by tightening the criteria for issuing no-knock warrants and stipulating that “the standard for warrantless no-knock entries should be substantially the same as the standard for no-knock warrants.”
The legislative findings correctly declare, “A no-knock entry into a dwelling can increase danger and confusion because occupants may not recognize law enforcement is making entry and may mistake the entry as entry by an unlawful intruder,” and, “No-knock entries should be made only when doing so is necessary to protect human life and not when doing so would increase the risk to human life.”
Under the new law, a judge may only issue a no-knock warrant if the officers seeking the warrant establish by affidavit that “a no-knock entry is necessary because of a credible threat to the life of any person, including the peace officers exercising the warrant.” [Emphasis added].
The law allows for a warrantless no-knock entry if “circumstances known to the officer at the time provide an objectively reasonable basis to believe that a no-knock entry or not waiting a reasonable amount of time is necessary because of an emergency threatening the life of or grave injury to a person, provide that the imminent danger is not created by law enforcement itself.”
On the surface, this may sound like it imposes tight limits on no-knock raids, but in practice, it creates virtually no limits at all. That’s because the law allows police officers to subjectively determine if the entry might put their lives in danger. And police officers can (and do) almost always positively assert “officer safety.”
In practice, under the new Colorado law, police can get a no-knock warrant or conduct a warrantless no-knock entry simply by declaring they are or were “in fear for their lives.” Nobody is going to dispute their assessment. Judges will almost certainly rubber-stamp every no-knock raid in the state.
This is literally a limit with no limits.
In fact, the standard is very similar to the one set by the Supreme Court that opened the door to the proliferation of no-knock raids to begin with.
In the 1995 case Wilson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court established that police must peacefully knock, announce their presence, and allow time for the occupants to open the door before entering a home to serve a warrant. But the Court allowed for “exigent circumstance” exceptions if police fear violence, if the suspect is a flight risk, or if officers fear the suspect will destroy evidence.
While the Colorado law does not allow no-knock warrants to preserve evidence, it leaves the most sweeping “exigent circumstance” in place — officer safety. In effect, this is a “get out of jail free card” for cops looking to justify no-knock entries. Any “reform” to limit no-knock raids with this exception effectively imposes no limit at all.
The best approach is to ban no-knock raids altogether. If no-knock raids are going to be allowed, they should only be used to capture suspects in violent crimes such as rape, kidnapping and murder. They should not be used as tools in the “war on drugs,” which is the justification for the majority of no-knock raids.
It’s fair to consider the safety of law enforcement officers in the equation, but there needs to be some objective standard to invoke “officer safety,” not a mere assertion from a law enforcement officer.
These feckless no-knock warrant reforms generally pushed by Democrats are eerily similar to some of the fake gun sanctuary bills passed by Republicans in states like Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. They allow politicians to posture to their constituents and claim to be reformers while simultaneously kowtowing to powerful law enforcement lobby groups that fund their campaigns.
This underscores an important point — we can’t trust the word of politicians.
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