Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Proposed no-knock warrant ban not quite a ban, but a good conversation starter

Your correspondent testified yesterday on behalf of a couple of bills ostensibly banning no-knock search warrants, although a committee substitute would allow them if the police chief signed off. Reps Gene Wu and Jasmine Crockett brought the legislation. Best news coverage was out of Killeen, where this issue has taken on a life of its own.

While Grits testified in favor, the bill as proposed is about the most minimalist reform imaginable and won't either a) ban no-knock warrants or b) solve the problems associated with them. In particular, it doesn't require officers to "knock"; only to "announce" themselves before they enter. According to Rep. Wu's layout to the committee, this would be satisfied by yelling "Police" then breaking down the door.

That's generally what happens now. Cops sometimes contrast "no knock" warrants and what's euphemistically called "quick knock" entry (which typically involves yelling instead of knocking). But as a practical matter, this is a distinction without a difference. Entry happens simultaneously with the announcement and homeowners aren't given time to answer the door.

In testimony, I suggested several additions to the bill that would improve it greatly.

First, the Legislature could actually set stronger standards for when no-knock warrants are allowable. I argued no-knock raids should be forbidden for drug offenses. Prosecuting drug possession cases is not worth the lives of the Dennis Tuttles, Rhogena Davises, or Breonna Taylors of the world. Rep. Wu made the point that the risks of such raids aren't justified for an amount of user-level dope that could be flushed down the toilet. 

The Killeen Police Department last year changed its policies to end no-knock raids on narcotics warrants after raiding the wrong home and getting an officer killed. The Legislature should extend that policy statewide.

Worst case: If officers knock and a dealer flushes drugs down the toilet, the dealer's business has been disrupted, the drugs are destroyed, and everyone lives to see another day. The small chance of a felony conviction doesn't justify the risk, and using the tactic for drug crimes infuses racial bias into the process.

Such a change might just end the practice. I can't think of the last time I heard of a no-knock raid in Texas that wasn't executing a drug warrant. They aren't used for much of anything else. (Police unions countered they think such busts are worth risking life and limb; I wonder how many legislators agree?)

Similarly, Grits argued that possession of a legal firearm should not justify no-knock entry. Too many Texans own firearms for that to be an excuse. In the Harding Street raid in Houston that killed Tuttle and Davis and left a police officer paralyzed (still waiting on ballistic reports to determine whether this was caused by friendly fire), alleged gun possession was part of the basis for the no-knock approval. But a) the officer named a different type of gun in the warrant than they actually had, and b) their weapons were by all accounts legal.

Another reform that would help these situations a lot was actually suggested in another form in a different bill at the same hearing. 

HB 2631 by Matt Krause and Jeff Leach requires a pretrial hearing to determine the reliability of jailhouse informants for most serious, violent offenses. This mechanism would provide an added layer of accountability in the search warrant context as well. In the Harding Street raid, Officer Gerald Goines allegedly fabricated an informant and likely did so many more times before that, according to post hoc investigations. It was a lie: His "snitch" whose testimony he portrayed to the judge in an affidavit didn't in fact exist.

Grits would like to see the law require similar reliability hearings before signing off on no-knock warrants, even with chiefs' approval. Is it too much to ask to verify that an informant exists and gave verifiable intelligence?

Finally, any reform legislation on this topic should include a data-collection component. You can't manage what you don't measure and we know very little about how often no-knock or forcible entries occur, under what circumstances, how many people (including officers) are injured or killed, how many result in finding contraband or come up empty. We just have no information on the topic.

If Texas is going to pass the most minimalist restriction on no-knock warrants and otherwise allow them to continue, we should at least include data collection to illuminate these discussions in the future.

I'm grateful to Wu and Crockett for raising the issue, even if their bills don't go as far as Grits might prefer. The conversation has to start before reform can occur, and this hearing was at least a conversation starter.


Anonymous said...

Starting a conversation about the police starting with conversation!

Gadfly said...

Data collection would be great. Can we make sure a racial breakdown is in this?

Curtailing jailhouse snitches would be greater yet. As part of that, requiring prosecutors to reveal what deals were made. As part of THAT, requiring cops and jailers to tell prosecutors what deals THEY made. I think, a fair amount of the time, prosecutors may not know about handshake deals inside the jail.

Anonymous said...

Here is a thought on no knock warrants. As forceable entry is being made, (at the exact same time) activate the red/blue emergency lights and announce via a PA “PO-lice Search Warrant”. Red/blue LED police car lights are immediately identifiable in medium to low light times and also identifiable during full daylight. Doing this, there can be no confusion like in the B. Taylor case by neighbors or otherwise that officers failed to identify themselves. Body cameras on a well,

Judges can deny a No-knock request by LE.