The past weeks have seen unfortunate incidents occur in law enforcement. A little more than a week ago, Atlanta police executed a "no-knock" raid on 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston's house. The resulting gun battle between Johnston and the police wounded three officers and killed Johnston. This incident, as well as other cases, suggests that the time has come to review the use of the "no-knock" warrant by police.
In the case of Johnston, the details present a tragic picture. Johnston lived alone in a crime-ridden Atlanta suburb. According to many news reports, Johnston was so afraid of crime that she did not even let neighbors into her house when they purchased her groceries. Supposedly, Atlanta police had information from an informant that the house contained drugs. The police used what has become standard procedure in many drug-related cases and served a no-knock warrant on her house.
No-knock warrants first evolved out of situations in which a potentially dangerous criminal was involved, especially if possible hostages were around or the criminal could hurt someone else. When serving this type of warrant, the police may enter the building without first knocking and announcing themselves. The beginning of the "war on drugs" changed the circumstances where this technique is used. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in Wilson v. Arkansas that police could use no-knock warrants if "there is reason to believe evidence may be destroyed." Police often use this justification when conducting drug raids. There is a real possibility that suspects may be able to dispose of at least some of the evidence by flushing drugs down the toilet, the sink or elsewhere. However, there are dangerous problems with this policy.
Although an unannounced entry may be necessary in some situations, the scene of multitudes of armed men bursting into a residence can be extremely disconcerting and frightening. Furthermore, it may cause the very type of deadly reaction that police are trying to avoid. For example, in the case of Johnston, it is likely that she did not realize the intruders in her house were police officers. Now that it is clear she lived in fear, I don't find it surprising that she reacted forcefully when they invaded her house.
Another incident in Mississippi illustrates the hazards of the no-knock policy. Columnist and blogger Radley Balko put together an excellent review of the case, and I cite much of his description of the case here. In December 2001, police raided the home of Cory Maye. Maye lived in a duplex whose other occupant had been implicated by an anonymous informant as a drug dealer. Police secured warrants to both homes and raided the duplex on the night of Dec. 26. Maye and his 1-year-old daughter were sleeping at the time of the raid. Although the police claim they announced themselves, Maye argues that either they did not or, since he was sleeping, he did not hear them. Regardless, Maye woke to the sounds of the raid and shot and killed the police officer who entered the bedroom where he was sleeping. The police found one smoked marijuana cigarette in his house. For his action, Maye originally received the death penalty, although this sentence was overturned on appeal in September of this year.
These two cases illustrate the possible dangers of the no-knock policy. Innocent or non-violent citizens may justifiably conclude that they are in danger and retaliate against the police. The challenge for the police is to correctly identify situations where this type of warrant is truly needed. The more often the no-knock warrant is used, the greater the likelihood incidents such as these will occur. In the future, law enforcement needs to carefully evaluate the necessity of a no-knock warrant and work toward avoiding tragic situations such as those of Kathryn Johnston and Cory Maye.
Andrew Wagner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is sophomore majoring in computer science and political science.