By LaKeshia N. Myers
If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you know the love I have for music. Being a certified “band geek” that plays four instruments, I believe there is a song that accompanies every moment of our lives. And no song could tell the story of American law enforcement’s obsession with no-knock warrants than “Identify Yourself” by the O’Jay’s. The song’s hook asks one simple question, “Hark! Who goes there? Identify yourself!”—a request this simple, one shouldn’t think twice about complying—then again, maybe not. Our sordid history with no-knock warrants prove that we have lots of work to do.
From our country’s founding, English common law has required law enforcement professionals to knock-and-announce themselves. The earliest versions of this date back to at least Semayne’s case #5 which was decided by the King’s Bench in 1604. This pattern and practice was codified by the United States Supreme Court in the 1958 case Miller v. United States; there, the court recognized that police must give notice before making a forced entry. Because of the impending “war on drugs” the 1963 Supreme Court ruling Ker v. California set a precedent in favor of forcible police entries involving drugs out of concern that evidence could be destroyed. The court also declared that the standards of reasonableness are the same under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments applying in federal and state courts.
However, it was not until Richards v. Wisconsin (1997) that the court allowed no-knock searches when police have, “a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile, or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of the crime by, for example, allowing the destruction of evidence,” (Supreme Court, 1997). This ruling allowed local and state judges a lot of discretion in determining what constitutes “reasonable suspicion.” This judicial discretion has almost always resulted in warrants being executed, in secret, late at night or early in the morning, which increases the risk of violence, especially given the prevalence of private gun ownership in United States.
Radley Balko, an investigative journalist and the author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop speaks of the dangers of no-knock warrants. According to his book, no-knock warrants weren’t a tool law enforcement agencies were asking for, it was federal policy derived to support Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. When it was first implemented early in Nixon’s presidency, there were so many botched drug raids and civilian deaths that Congressional hearings were held and Congress eventually repealed the federal no-knock raid law. No-knock warrants made a comeback in the 1980s during the Reagan administration.
Such was the case for Breonna Taylor. Taylor, a Louisville EMT, was shot in her home by Louisville police who were executing a no-knock search warrant. According to court records, Taylor’s boyfriend believed the house was being invaded and fired his weapon—officers returned fire, which ultimately killed Taylor. A similar incident occurred in 2006 when ninety-two year old Kathryn Johnston was killed by three undercover Atlanta police officers during a no-knock raid. Assuming her home was being invaded, Ms. Johnston fired one shot through the front door which went over officers’ heads. Police fired 39 shots in response, five of which hit Johnston, killing her. One officer was later convicted for planting three bags of marijuana in the home; officers were also convicted on charges of manslaughter, making false statements, and conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in death.
These are not just isolated incidences that have occurred in other places, Milwaukee police officer Matthew Rittner was killed in the line of duty while executing a no-knock warrant in 2019.When asked about the frequency of deaths resulting from no-knock warrants, Balko said, “on average, we see about eight to ten cases per year where a completely innocent person is killed among these raids” (Balko, 2020). Eight to ten deaths per year, for the past forty years is far too many innocent lives lost to a failed policy.
Early last week I introduced “Breonna’s Law”, which, if passed would prohibit the use of no-knock warrants in the state of Wisconsin. The bill would also limit the hours in which a warrant could be executed (between 6:00AM-10:00PM). From my vantage point, this is the safest policy to ensure citizens and police are equally protected. As the state that created no-knock warrants, Wisconsin has the responsibility to be the state to end their use. When we know better, we must do better, and this is a step in the right direction.
To learn more about “Breonna’s Law”, please contact my office at (608) 266-5813 or Rep.Myers@legis.wisconsin.gov. To encourage your State Representative and State Senator to support ending no-knock warrants, please contact the Wisconsin Legislative hotline at 1-800-362-9472.