No-knock warrants have become the strategy of first choice for many police departments. Most of these target those suspected of drug possession or sales, rather than the truly dangerous situations they should be reserved for. The rise in no-knock warrants has resulted in an increased number of deadly altercations. Cops have been shot in self-defense by residents who thought their homes were being invaded by criminals. Innocent parties have been wounded or killed because the element of surprise police feel is so essential in preventing the destruction of evidence puts cops — often duded up in military gear — into a mindset that demands violent reaction to any perceived threat. In these situations, the noise and confusion turns everything into a possible threat, even the motions of frightened people who don’t have time to grasp the reality — and severity — of the situation.
No-knock warrants are basically SWATting, with cops — rather than 13-year-old gamers — instigating the response. Judges should be holding any no-knock warrant request to a higher standard and demand more evidentiary justification for the extreme measure — especially considering the heightened probability of a violent outcome. But they don’t.
A Massachusetts court decision posted by the extremely essential FourthAmendment.com shows just how little it takes to obtain a no-knock warrant. The probable cause provided to obtain the no-knock warrant was ridiculous, but it wasn’t challenged by the magistrate who signed off on the request. What’s detailed here should raise concerns in every citizen.
The affidavit supporting the warrant contained the following representations: 1) the extensive training and experience in drug investigations, controlled purchases and arrests of the officer who made the affidavit, 2) the confidential informant’s report that the apartment for which a warrant was sought was “small, confined and private,” 3) the confidential informant’s report that the defendant “keeps his door locked and admits only people whom he knows,” 4) the fact that the defendant sold drugs to the informant only after arrangements were made by telephone, and 5) the officer’s assessment that, given the retail nature of the defendant’s operation and the fragile nature of the illegal drugs involved, “it would not be difficult for [the defendant] to destroy the narcotics if given the forewarning.”
In other words, if you have a “private” home with working toilets and locks and you don’t routinely allow complete strangers to wander around your home, you, too, could be subjected to a no-knock warrant. This description fits pretty much every person who lives in a residence anywhere. All it takes is an officer’s “upon information and belief” statement and a few assertions from a confidential informant, whose otherwise unreliable narration (if, say, he/she was facing charges in court) is routinely treated as infallible by cops and courts alike.
The appeals court may have pointed out how ridiculous this warrant application is, but its statements are far removed from the time and place the application was submitted, approved and served. So, the courts still provide an avenue of recourse, but this decision does nothing to prevent cops from using the same specious assertions to obtain no-knock warrants in the future.
In fact, this decision possibly makes the situation worse. The court notes that many of the assertions made by the police in support of the no-knock application aren’t solely applicable to the presumed destruction of evidence. The apartment’s “small size” would supposedly make it “easier” for the suspect to destroy evidence during the serving of a normal warrant. The court points out that the limited confines would also make it easier for officers to find and apprehend the suspect before such destruction could take place. It also points out that a locked door isn’t just a thing people use to keep cops out. They also use it to keep other criminals out, like burglars.
But in the end, the evidence obtained by the no-knock search remained unsuppressed. Even though the warrant application made a bunch of broad assertions that could conceivably cover every private residence, the defects in the paperwork couldn’t overcome the court’s willingness to cut the PD some slack.
Applying these principles to the present circumstances, we conclude that suppression is not warranted. The police did not act unilaterally; they properly applied for a warrant, requested a no-knock provision and submitted an affidavit setting forth all the available and relevant facts known to them. While we conclude as a matter of law that they did not ultimately provide sufficient basis for the issuance of the warrant in that form, the police did not act in bad faith, and the defendant makes no such claim. Having obtained the warrant, they observed its strictures.
The “good faith exception” triumphs again. Police officers don’t need to know if the law they’re trying to enforce is even on the books, nor do they have to provide actual probable cause to obtain a warrant. They just have to “reasonably” believe they’re in the right, and wait for a court to back up their beliefs. Faith-based policing means every citizen needs to follow the letter and spirit of wholly imaginary laws, and subject themselves to whatever powers law enforcement officers “reasonably believe” they have.
This decision changes nothing. In fact, it makes things worse for Massachusetts residents. Cops can still obtain warrants using almost nothing in the way of probable cause, and when challenged in court, rely on judges to uphold the belief that officers always “try their best” — even when it appears they barely tried at all.