Monday, April 18, 2022

No-knock warrants need more judicial scrutiny

 In Louisiana, it took a judge just a few clicks online to give West Baton Rouge Parish deputies the go-ahead to force their way into a motel room without knocking. Within 30 minutes, officers rushed in and fatally shot an unarmed Black man, seizing a little more than 22 grams of methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and hydrocodone, reported the Washington Post.

In St. Louis, a judge authorized police to break down the doors of three homes simultaneously without knocking. Officers killed a 63-year-old Black grandfather, and police said they found just over nine grams of heroin, marijuana, fentanyl and hydrocodone in the three homes combined.

In Houston, a judge approved scores of requests for no-knock warrants for officers who relied on unnamed informants. One raid led to a gun battle that left a White man and woman dead and four officers shot, and it failed to turn up the heroin police said they would find. The officer who requested the warrant later admitted he fabricated the confidential informant.

Judges and magistrates are expected to review requests for no-knock warrants — one of the most intrusive and dangerous tactics available to law enforcement — to ensure that citizens are protected from unreasonable searches, as provided in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

But judges generally rely on the word of police officers and rarely question the merits of the requests, offering little resistance when they seek authorization for no-knocks, a Washington Post investigation has found. The searches, which were meant to be used sparingly, have become commonplace for drug squads and SWAT teams.

Criminal justice experts estimate that police carry out tens of thousands of no-knock raids every year nationwide, mostly in drug-related searches. But few agencies monitor their use, making the exact number unknown. None of the 50 state court systems or the District of Columbia reported tracking the use of no-knock warrants. And no federal or state government agencies keep tabs on the number of people killed or wounded in the raids.

“The whole system has devolved into a perfunctory bureaucracy that doesn’t take any care or due diligence for how it’s done,” said Peter Kraska, an Eastern Kentucky University professor who has studied no-knock raids for more than three decades. “That wouldn’t be as big of a deal, except that we’re talking about a really extreme policing approach — breaking into people’s homes with a surprise entry with the possibility of finding evidence.”

The raids became a flash point two years ago when Louisville police killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor inside her apartment as part of a drug investigation involving an ex-boyfriend who didn’t live there. In that case, an officer obtained no-knock warrants for Taylor’s home and four other residences. Police later said they knocked and announced themselves at Taylor’s home, a claim that has been disputed. In a no-knock raid in February, Minneapolis police shot and killed 22-year-old Amir Locke. Body-camera footage shows Locke, who was not the target of the investigation, wrapped in a blanket on a couch with a gun in his hand when police shot him.

Police carrying out 21 no-knock warrants have killed at least 22 people across the country since 2015, according to a review of The Post’s database of fatal shootings by police and hundreds of court records. In one case, an officer was also killed.

Of the 22 people fatally shot during no-knock raids since 2015, 13 were Black or Hispanic. Experts have suggested that high-risk searches disproportionately target Black and Hispanic homes.

In the vast majority of the cases, police said they were searching for illegal drugs and expected the subjects to be armed.

In all but two of these raids, police claimed they encountered someone who had a weapon — in most cases a gun. In at least five raids, police killed someone who was not a focus of the warrant, according to court records and media reports.

The Post obtained documents listing evidence for 13 of the fatal raids: In 12, officers recovered less than three pounds of drugs combined — including marijuana, mushrooms and heroin. Only one raid recovered more: In 2018 in Fort Worth, officers found more than a pound of marijuana, three pounds of mushrooms and more than 16 pounds of a prescription allergy medicine. Officials did not respond to a request for or declined to provide a list quantifying the drugs seized in the other eight raids.

The full tally of fatalities from no-knock warrants is unknown: The Post database includes at least 24 other searches that ended in fatal shootings of civilians, but court officials and police departments were unable or declined to provide records clarifying whether the raids involved no-knock warrants. In 2017, the New York Times examined SWAT team raids and found that at least 81 civilians and 13 officers had died from 2010 through 2016 in searches that involved both no-knock warrants and knock-and-announce warrants.

In recent years, it has become quicker and easier for judges to approve no-knock warrants, bypassing the normal process that usually involves an officer meeting with a judge in person. Software, adopted by hundreds of law enforcement agencies, allows judges to remotely approve requests using computers, cellphones or tablets.

The Post reviewed more than 2,500 warrants in 30 states, examined court and police records, and interviewed dozens of judges, police officials, lawmakers, witnesses and relatives of people who died in raids.

Officers obtaining typical search warrants are required to show a judge they have probable cause, listing the location to be searched and the contraband or evidence they expect to find. They’re also supposed to “knock and announce” before entering homes.

But with a no-knock warrant, police can force their way into a home without warning. The requirements for no-knock warrants may vary by jurisdiction, but are generally guided by a 1997 Supreme Court opinion involving a forced-entry search by police. The court ruled that police seeking to conduct these searches must have a “reasonable suspicion” why knocking and announcing could be dangerous or result in the destruction of evidence. Police are generally expected to make this argument to judges when seeking approval for a no-knock warrant.

“This showing is not high, but the police should be required to make it whenever the reasonableness of a no-knock entry is challenged,” the justice wrote.

Training and educational requirements for judges vary state to state. In some cases, judges or magistrates without law degrees or extensive training are tasked with approving no-knocks.

“It’s set up so that police departments can do whatever they want with regards to no-knocks,” Kraska said.

Across the country, 29 states and 21 cities have approved legislation or ordinances restricting the use of no-knocks, according to Campaign Zero, a police reform group. At least 13 other states and nine other cities have recently considered proposals for such restrictions, the group said.

In Maryland, after Montgomery County Police killed a man in a no-knock raid, the council in 2020 imposed limits on such warrants. Police reported that 108 of 140 search warrants executed by the SWAT team in 2019 were no-knocks.

In South Carolina, Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty ordered a temporary ban on no-knocks in 2020 after a survey by the state court system revealed that magistrates routinely issued warrants without questioning police, and that most “do not understand the gravity of no-knock warrants and do not discern the heightened requirements for issuing a no-knock warrant.”

But many judges say that in evaluating the requests for search warrants, they rely on the officers’ claims in the affidavits because they are filed under oath.

Gordon Marcum, a former municipal judge who approved the no-knock warrant for the 2019 deadly raid in Houston, told The Post in an interview that he considered himself the last line of defense against unjustified searches and carefully scrutinized the warrants he handled. But he said it wasn’t his responsibility to spot patterns, including whether officers appeared to be lying on affidavits or whether police failed to locate the guns or drugs they claimed they would find. Though officers typically must file documents with the court detailing what they seized in raids, judges who sign the warrants aren’t required to examine them.

“It wasn’t my job to do that,” Marcum said. “It’s the officer who’s in charge. The police officer, the supervisor, the captain, the department director, and all of them who have access to those things.”

Police defending these warrants note that the vast majority of them lead to no injuries and are likely to have prevented violence and preserved evidence that otherwise would have been destroyed.

Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said there are misconceptions about no-knocks, including that police use them frequently and haphazardly. “In reality, there’s a whole lot of assessment that goes into determining whether a no-knock warrant is going to be executed,” Yoes said.

The raids can be deadly not only for residents, but officers as well.

One Texas man, Marvin Guy, is facing charges, including capital murder, after an officer was killed and three others were shot during a 2014 no-knock raid at his home in Killeen. Guy was sleeping when officers smashed his window and slammed a battering ram into his front door. He said he thought he was being robbed and fired a gun through the broken window. Police had suspected that Guy, who had an extensive criminal history, was selling drugs, but no drugs were found in his home. Police said they found trace amounts of a white powder in his car, records show.

Survivors of raids have said they feared that intruders were breaking into their homes. In Louisville, Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend said he fired at police because he didn’t know who was storming the apartment.

Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, said she blames the judge who signed the warrant that led to her daughter’s death as much as she blames the police.

“We know that [police] are not doing the work to get these warrants, that they’re not doing what needs to be done,” she said. “Why would you want to sign your name on that? Why wouldn’t you want to make sure, ‘Let me just take a day or two to make sure you’ve done what you need to.’ … It’s insane, it’s lazy.”

On Feb. 21, 2017, a boom shook Marlon O’Neal from his sleep in his basement bedroom in south St. Louis. Panicked and half-dressed, he told his girlfriend to hide in the closet. She yelled for her 4-year-old son, who was sleeping near the front door.

O’Neal, thinking intruders had broken in, said he crept up the steps and saw red lasers from gun sights aimed at the living room wall. He realized the men, clad in dark clothing, were police. Officers yelled at him to go outside, where police SUVs lined California Avenue.

A SWAT team had already raided his neighbor’s home two doors down. Now, the team of 17 officers converged and headed to a third house next to O’Neal’s home.

Inside was his former father-in-law: 63-year-old Don Clark, known as “Pops.” He was hard of hearing, couldn’t see well and walked with a cane. He slept in a bed near the front door.

Officers smashed a battering ram into Clark’s front door and tossed a flash-bang device inside, according to witness statements and police records. Nicholas Manasco, the first officer in, later told an investigator that Clark shot at him — he said he felt a bullet whiz past him and in the darkness saw someone holding a gun. Manasco shot at Clark, hitting him nine times. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

O’Neal was not arrested or charged in connection with the raid.

The deadly raid was one of many in which judges gave St. Louis police the go-ahead to target multiple homes simultaneously with no-knock warrants.

In the raid on California Avenue, police initially sought to search two addresses; they added Clark’s home two days later, records show. The affidavits were identical for all three homes.

Detective Thomas Strode of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department accused Clark and others of conducting drug sales and storing weapons and narcotics in homes on California Avenue. In his affidavit, Strode said he also did several weeks of surveillance. He reported a controlled drug buy, but it happened five months earlier and about a mile away from California Avenue, according to the affidavit.

Strode noted in his affidavit that some of the residents of the targeted homes had criminal histories: “Since the targets of the investigation are known to be armed narcotic traffickers, many of whom have a violent history, I am requesting no-knock search warrants” for the three homes.

O’Neal, who lived next to Clark, had felony convictions, including unlawful possession of a firearm in 2010. Ben Byas, another neighbor, was on probation for possession with intent to distribute drugs. And Strode said in the affidavit that Clark had arrests for unlawful use of a weapon, felonious restraint and assault. A Post review of local court records showed Clark, who once owned a security company, had no charges or convictions.

On the morning of the raid, Associate Circuit Court Judge Barbara Peebles signed the warrants.

A court spokesman said Peebles determined there was probable cause “based on the information presented under oath.” Peebles, now a judge in the juvenile court, declined to comment further.

From 2016 through 2018, Strode received approval for at least 43 no-knock warrants, according to a Post analysis of records obtained by ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy group helping to represent Clark’s family in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the police. Twenty-four of the warrants involved multi-house raids.

In nearly half of those 43 raids for which Strode received approval, officers said they failed to find suspected drugs, according to a review of documents filed in court by police.

Police need a judge’s approval to raid a home or business without warning. These are high-risk searches that require additional scrutiny — but a Post investigation found that judges rarely question the merits of these requests by police. This affidavit from a 2017 raid by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department shows how police obtained no-knock warrants to raid three homes.

Strode did not respond to messages seeking comment. Evita Caldwell, a police spokeswoman, said Strode and Manasco, the officer who fatally shot Clark, no longer work at the St. Louis police department and declined to discuss the terms of their departures. More than five years later, the department and the circuit attorney said they are still investigating the fatal shooting.

Police rely heavily on confidential informants, but experts said they can be unreliable — incentivized to trade questionable information for reduced sentences or other beneficial treatment.

David Moran, a University of Michigan law professor who argued before the Supreme Court in a case about evidence seized during no-knocks, said a raid on one home can easily become a violent confrontation. Carrying out simultaneous no-knock warrants at several homes “just multiplies the risk,” he said.

That risk takes on a new dimension in states with high gun ownership or “stand your ground” laws, including Missouri. In those states, people may legally defend themselves with deadly force if they believe their life is in danger.

Clark had moved into his home a few years earlier and was concerned about crime, his family said.

Sherrie Clark-Torrence, one of Clark’s daughters, said that she doesn’t believe her father used a gun as police claimed, but even if he had, it would have been self-defenseIn the family’s lawsuit, they allege that he was unarmed, that he had no criminal convictions and police lied about surveillance of his home.

“He’s already an elderly man in a bad neighborhood,” she said in an interview. “So if he heard a boom and he grabbed his revolver … to protect himself, wouldn’t that be right?”

The city of St. Louis declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

Police said they recovered a .45 caliber Glock handgun, a 9mm Taurus handgun and boxes of ammunition from Clark’s home. A forensics report concluded that one gun had been fired.

Clark’s family disputes that he had any drugs, according to their lawsuit.

At Clark’s home, officers reported finding 8.39 grams of heroin and 0.50 grams of marijuana. They also said they found 20 pills; a lab test determined one to be .005 grams of hydrocodone.

At the home of Ben Byas, police said they recovered 0.1 grams of fentanyl, .08 grams of heroin and fentanyl, and a plastic bag with an unknown white substance.

After the raid, Byas told police he had heroin and cocaine in his home. When a detective asked if he sold them, Byas responded, “No I just pretty much use.” He was arrested, but wasn’t charged.

Police said they seized no drugs at O’Neal’s home. He and his girlfriend claimed officers stole money from a safe in his basement. He questioned whether the raids were worth it.

“You did all these search warrants, and that’s all you found in this house,” he said, referring to Clark’s home. “What about my house? What did you find there? … You know, not nothing.”

On a humid afternoon in July 2019 in Port Allen, La., the River West Narcotics Task Force sent a confidential informant to buy $50 worth of methamphetamine from a suspected drug dealer at the Budget 7 Motel, sandwiched between a gas station and another motel near the Mississippi River.

The quick transaction in room No. 5 was enough evidence for West Baton Rouge sheriff’s Deputy Brett Cavaliere to request a no-knock warrant.

Cavaliere filled out the request in his office, using software called CloudGavel. The affidavit was barely four pages long, mostly filled with Cavaliere’s law enforcement experience and boilerplate language.

He typed in one sentence about the suspect: “Affiant states in the last 72 hours, an informant purchased a quantity of methamphetamine during a controlled operation from a Black male at the Budget 7 Motel Room #5.” He didn’t include the suspect’s name, whether he had a gun or who else was in the room.

At 6:06 p.m., with the click of a button, the deputy sent the request to Tonya Lurry, a West Baton Rouge judge, for approval: “Affiant has requested and cause has been shown for the authorization of a ‘NO KNOCK’ entry or entry without announcement to search the aforesaid premises,” it stated.

At 6:17 p.m., Lurry electronically signed it, records show. It’s unclear whether Lurry spoke with the deputy or how much time she spent considering the request.

About 6:40 p.m., Cavaliere approached the motel room with Deputy Vance Matranga and two other West Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputies.

Jessica Clouatre told The Post she was on the bed inside, watching a YouTube video. Her 38-year-old fiance, Josef Richardson, had just showered, and she said he opened the door a crack to let out cigarette smoke. The couple was staying at the motel while searching for a new apartment, and had hosted Richardson’s daughters the day before.

He had a criminal record that included felony convictions for resisting arrest and battery of an officer, and he was on parole after pleading guilty in 2017 to possession with intent to sell drugs. He looked tough with tattoos and gold teeth, but his friends and family knew him as a father of three who enjoyed taking his children shopping and to water parks.

Clouatre said she looked up as deputies rushed in and yelled “sheriff’s office!” She said both she and Richardson had their hands up when one deputy bent Richardson’s arm and brought him to the ground. Within seconds, she said, Matranga had shot Richardson in the back of the neck.

The deputies involved in the raid told a state police investigator that there was a struggle between Cavaliere and Richardson. One deputy said he holstered his gun to help Cavaliere, and Matranga said he fired his gun after seeing Richardson pull out a dark object from the waistband of his shorts, according to interviews with investigators.

But Richardson was unarmed: He was holding a bag of drugs, according to an attorney general’s report. Officers arrested Clouatre, and Richardson died at the scene.

Officers said they recovered about 9 grams of methamphetamine, 9 grams of marijuana, 4.4 grams of cocaine and a few pills containing hydrocodone.

“Anybody selling drugs out of the Budget 7 Motel is not a major player,” said Ron Haley, an attorney representing Richardson’s children in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the sheriff’s office.

The state attorney general ruled the killing was justified. Cavaliere, who is now a lieutenant, did not return requests for comment.

In an interview with The Post, Matranga declined to discuss most details of the case. Matranga, who is now a corporal in the department, also defended Cavaliere, saying he is a “meticulous and thorough” officer. And he said he believed Richardson could have been armed because of his “extensive criminal history.”

Deputies found no weapons in his motel room.

The family questions the basis for the deadly raid.

Lurry, who approved the warrant, was elected as a judge 15 months before Richardson’s shooting after a career as a public defender and prosecutor. She declined repeated requests for comment.

For years, Louisiana has been a leader in “e-warrants,” warrants that are processed electronically on computers, smartphones and other tablets. CloudGavel, the Baton Rouge software company used by the sheriff’s office, said its technology is used in nine states by more than 200 agencies, including police in Austin and New Orleans. The number of all types of warrants processed annually increased from 13,000 to almost 90,000 over the past six years. The company declined to say how many of those were no-knock warrants.

CloudGavel markets its software by emphasizing its efficiency, using the tag line “Serves justice. Saves time.” An information sheet on its website proclaimed: “The one that got away? Not this time. When officers use CloudGavel’s Electronic Warrant Solution, warrant processing can happen up to 90% faster.”

Around the time of Richardson’s death, CloudGavel touted that it took about 27 minutes from warrant submission to approval. Cavaliere and Lurry beat that by 16 minutes.

Casey Roussel, CloudGavel’s president and chief customer officer, said law enforcement likes the technology because it saves time and money. He also said that the software allows courts to gather more data about warrants.

“The technology is not giving them the ability to more easily get no-knock warrants,” he said. “We’re eliminating the drive to and from the judge. At the end of the day, whether it’s a paper warrant or a digital warrant, one hundred percent of the responsibility relies on the judge.”

But some criminal justice advocates worry that judicial scrutiny is being compromised for efficiency, said the Rev. Alexis Anderson, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. The organization sends volunteers to monitor bail hearings in Baton Rouge.

“While the technology certainly speeds up the process, what gets lost sometimes is the due process in that speed,” she said. “Because we’re assuming, quite frankly, that great thought is given to these warrants … and sometimes that’s not true.”

Richardson’s children, as well as Clouatre, have sued the West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office over the raid. That case is pending.

Clouatre is facing felony charges of possession with intent to distribute drugs from that night at the motel. She has pleaded not guilty.

The warrant did not name Clouatre, who said she is haunted by the raid.

“To this day, I cry every day and I’m traumatized,” she said.

Houston Judge Gordon Marcum was watching television at home in his gated community on Jan. 28, 2019, when he learned about a deadly no-knock raid across town. Immediately, he knew that he had signed the search warrant.

Just hours before the raid on a house on Harding Street, Houston police officer Gerald Goines had requested Marcum approve a no-knock warrant, claiming a confidential informant purchased an unspecified quantity of heroin at the house in a low-income, largely Latino neighborhood in southeast Houston. The narcotics officer didn’t list the name of the suspected dealer, information that is not required.

Shortly before 5 p.m., members of Narcotics Squad 15 descended on the home of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, forcing open the front door and fatally shooting their pit bull. Officers shot and killed Tuttle and Nicholas in their living room.

Police claimed that Tuttle was armed with a .357-magnum revolver and shot first. Four officers, including Goines, were shot during the gun battle. One was permanently paralyzed.

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