- Bennett Nuss
Legal tracking: Are no knock warrants declining in use?
On Feb. 2, 2022, Minneapolis police executed a no-knock raid on Amir Locke’s apartment as part of a homicide investigation in neighboring St. Paul, Minnesota. Surprised by the entering officers, Locke reached for his legally registered firearm. SWAT shot him twice in the chest. He died at 7:01 a.m., 15 minutes after his door was broken down. The no-knock warrant did not name Amir Locke as a suspect. The body camera footage from one of the officers was leaked, and a massive public outcry against the Minneapolis Police Department and no-knock warrants followed.
Originally, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the execution of an arrest without announcing oneself as the police, explicitly stated in Miller v. United States in 1958. Furthermore, “Knock-and-announce” is codified in 18 U.S.C. § 3109. However, the Court gradually stripped back these protections over the next several decades. In Ker v. California, the Court held that officers forcibly entering an apartment to look for evidence were justified because they had probable cause to believe the evidence could be destroyed if the police announced themselves. The Court unanimously expanded this exception to the knock and announce rule in Wilson v. Arkansas, holding that there are circumstances in which the knock-and-announce requirement may be waived to ensure officer safety. Most notably in Richard v. Wisconsin, the Supreme Court codified a general right to waive knock-and-announce requirements if officers can reasonably identify a threat of physical violence or indicate that sensitive evidence could be destroyed if police announced themselves. This precedent developed over decades and was upheld by justices of varying constitutional philosophies ranging from Clarence Thomas to John Paul Stevens.
The result of this precedent was a vast expansion in the usage of no-knock raids, as it could so often be reasonable to assume that there may be a danger to officers in the execution of a warrant. The Washington Post took a random sample of 105 petitions for no-knock warrants from 2016-2018 and found that 103 of the 105 petitions were granted. In 97 of these cases, the police provided no specific information why the suspect in the warrant necessitated a no-knock approach. Anywhere between 60,000 to 70,000 no-knock warrants were served annually, as of 2010, an increase of almost 230% since 1981. No-knock raids are also statistically dangerous to officers, suspects and civilians. From 2010-2016, 31 civilians and 13 officers died during no-knock raids. No statistical information regarding injuries to officers or civilians is readily available.
In his 2006 opinion, Hudson v. Michigan, the late Justice Scalia defended no-knock raids by theorizing that the willingness of police departments to undertake no-knock operations would be tempered by the institutional costs of failed operations as well as the massive potential lawsuits from resulting injuries. While nearly two decades late, public outcry may be now matching Scalia’s predicted result if police used no-knock raids frivolously.
In 2020, Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police in a no-knock raid targeting her boyfriend. Taylor’s death caused a major public outcry against no-knock warrants. The response to her death has resulted in several municipalities revising their approach to no-knock raids. Louisville specifically banned the use of no-knock raids following Taylor’s death in 2020. Florida has prohibited the use of no-knock raids since 1994, when a Florida Supreme Court case eliminatedthe practice. Oregon has long banned the practice of no-knock warrants via statute. Following Oregon’s example, Virginiaand Tennessee have both statutorily banned no-knock raids within the last two years. Taking a moderate approach, Maine restricted no-knock warrants to specific ‘high risk situations’ and required the use of body cameras during raids believing they would reduce unnecessary injuries.
While there has been a small trend curbing the extent of no-knock raids, a plurality of states still either explicitly permit them or grant them regularly. However, as more stories like Amir Locke’s fall under public scrutiny, it is likely that criminal law practitioners will see a decrease in the currently excessive use of no-knock warrants. The overall effect of limiting these raids is uncertain, as their widespread use makes it nearly impossible to say what policing will look like if the practice is banned.