Amid the national protests against police brutality and the deaths of so many black Americans, many crucial questions have been raised about the extent of policing powers. They have also questioned the validity of no-knock warrants, which had been issued and signed off by a judge the night a Louisville Metro Police burst into Breonna Taylor’s apartment and shot her to death while she was asleep in bed.
According to a lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family, police fired more than 20 shots into the apartment and did not identify themselves or announce their presence prior. Police believed that a drug dealer who was later arrested at another location was using Taylor’s apartment to have drugs delivered, though no drugs were found at her home.
Following an investigation into the case, the officer who secured the warrant, Det. Joshua Jaynes, has been reassigned to administrative duty, and Louisville mayor Greg Fischer has announced that the use of no-knock warrants would be suspended indefinitely. The case has brought into sharp relief the practice of serving no-knock warrants, raising questions about whether they constitute a violation of individual rights and represent an overreach of police power.
A no-knock warrant, or no-knock raid, is a warrant signed off by a judge that allows police to enter a residence without prior notice, permission or express warning. Though the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches of one’s home, a 1995 Supreme Court decision, Wilson v. Arkansas, provided a loophole for unannounced police entry, making it OK if the officer’s safety was at risk or if there was a chance of evidence being destroyed.
Ostensibly, no-knock warrants are issued in cases where police are concerned about giving suspects time to destroy evidence once they arrive at their residence. “They are supposed to be used, rarely, in unusual cases where any announcement of presence would lead to loss of important evidence or harm to safety,” says Brandon L. Garrett, director of the Center for Science and Justice at the Duke University School of Law.
In practice, however, this is not the case. According to data from Eastern Kentucky University professor Peter Kraska, the number of no-knock warrants increased from approximately 1,500 a year in the early 1980s to about 45,000 in 2010. Their use has greatly increased starting in the 1980s thanks to the War on Drugs, and more often than not, they are used with respect to non-violent drug cases, says Walter Signorelli, professor at John Jay College and former NYPD police inspector. “The problem is if you’re doing a case and you knock on the door and say, ‘police, we’re outside,’ they’ll throw the drugs in the toilet bowl or out the window or something,” he tells Rolling Stone. “In those cases, you have to tell the judge that if you knock on the door, they’ll destroy the evidence, and then you have no case.”
Signorelli says that ideally, even in cases where they’ve obtained no-knock warrants, police are supposed to provide some form of verbal self-identification while they are breaking the door down. In practice, however, this doesn’t always happen. And as was the case with Breonna Taylor, no-knock raids have been known to result in injury or death; residents can mistake the police for violent intruders, prompting them to resort to violence in self-defense as a result. And in 2014, the practice drew national attention when a toddler was placed in a medically induced coma after police threw a grenade into his playpen during a 2:30 a.m. no-knock raid. The suspect had been accused of making a $50 methamphetamine sale, even though no drugs were ultimately found on the premises.
For this reason, many criminal-justice reform advocates have lobbied against the use of no-knock warrants. “I strongly believe that far more careful scrutiny is needed on how these no knock warrants are used in practice,” says Garrett. “They should be used rarely and only with very, very strong support.” The practice is banned outright in the states of Oregon and Florida, and individual cities have also followed suit, with the Houston Police Department announcing in February it would be putting an end to the practice after two suspects were killed and several officers injured during a drug raid. (An investigation revealed that the affidavit requesting the warrant contained “some material untruths or lies.”)