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Local View: Preserving evidence not enough justification for no-knock warrants

From the column: "A (2017) study ... showed that between 2010 and 2016, a total of 81 civilians and 13 police officers died in no-knock police raids. The same study indicated that twice as many officers died in no-knock-warrant situations compared to standard knock-and-announce warrant cases. No-knock laws must be repealed."

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A screen capture of a police body camera video shows the Minneapolis SWAT team enter an apartment where police fatally shot 22-year-old Amir Locke on Feb. 2.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Police Department
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The horribly tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday, March 13, 2020, and Amir Locke in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, have spawned nationwide protests and calls to ban no-knock warrants. In both cases, police forcibly entered the homes of Black people without announcing before entering who they were. In both cases, the occupants appeared to try to defend themselves against unknown armed assailants, resulting in innocent civilians being killed by police.

A number of recent newspaper and magazine articles have claimed that no-knock warrants are the product of the war on drugs started by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. This is false. In order to understand the nature and inherent issues with these types of warrants, we need to better understand their origins.

The constitutional right that supported the doctrine that a person’s home is their castle was eroded significantly by a series of California state court decisions in the 1950s. Case law in that state consistently allowed police to make forcible entries into homes without notice if “exigent circumstances” existed. The major reason given by the courts to allow varying from the “knock and announce” practice was that evidence could be destroyed if suspects were aware of imminent police entry, especially illicit drugs and gambling slips.

This California court construction was first tested by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 in Ker v. California. In that case, police entered an apartment without notice after getting the key from the landlord. The court decided in favor of California on a close vote of 5-4 and allowed for forcible entry into a home without notice, if evidence, in this case a brick of marijuana, would otherwise be destroyed.

This federal decision opened the possibility of other states creating laws allowing police entry without notice. In the very next year, the state of New York passed the first no-knock warrant law in the U.S. This legislation was signed into law on Tuesday, March 3, 1964, by Republican Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who later became U.S. vice president under President Gerald R. Ford.

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From the beginning, no-knock-warrant laws have been controversial. When New York was creating its statute, many civil-rights groups actively opposed it with protests, lobbying, and letter-writing campaigns. They argued the law could be used to discriminate against people of color. Objecting organizations included local chapters of the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Within a year after New York’s law went into effect, the controversy it created spread nationally via a popular national network television drama. On Thursday, Feb. 25, 1965, CBS aired an episode of “The Defenders,” starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, called “No-knock.”

While no-knock warrants predate the war on drugs, they dramatically increased during the war’s ill-fated, five-decades-long debacle. In 1980, there were an estimated 1,500 no-knock warrants issued per year nationwide. By 2000, that number exploded to an estimated 40,000. By 2020, that number skyrocketed again to an estimated 80,000, with more than half of those involving marijuana cases, as justice-studies professor Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University stated in a commentary last month in the Portland Press Herald in Maine.

While anyone could be a potential victim of these overzealous laws, data clearly show that people of color are much more likely to be victimized by no-knock warrants.

Hopeful change is happening across the nation. Five states now ban no-knock warrants: Oregon, Florida, Virginia, Connecticut, and Tennessee. Three of these enacted legislative bans in the last two years. Additionally, the city of Louisville passed an ordinance banning no-knock warrants, calling it “Breonna’s Law.”

A study done by the New York Times in 2017 showed that between 2010 and 2016, a total of 81 civilians and 13 police officers died in no-knock police raids. The same study indicated that twice as many officers died in no-knock-warrant situations compared to standard knock-and-announce warrant cases.

No-knock laws must be repealed. The risk to civilians and police is too great for the small payoff of preserving evidence. Furthermore, these racist laws have a long history of discrimination, which we must end now.

Dave Berger of Plymouth, Minnesota, is a retired sociology professor who taught for 37 years. He is also a freelance writer and regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.

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Dave Berger

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