More on the Warrants

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I left a voice mail for the judge in this case—who, my mistake, happens to be a woman.  I haven't heard back from her yet.

Georgia's state court system also has a separate "warrant office," which is where the woman at the general number directed me when I explained what I was looking for.  But the warrant office is apparently not accepting calls right now.  I get about forty rings, then a message saying that…um….they're not accepting calls.

A commenter at the Volokh site says that nearby Dekalb County uses an electronic warrant system, where police upload the warrant to a database, then a judge reads and signs it online.  If that's true, it explains the identical signatures, and at least takes the forgery issue off the table. 

But it also raises other concerns. It means there's no face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice between the judge and the LEO asking for the warrant.  Efficiency and automation are great, but not if they foster a lack of scrutiny and encourage lapses in judicial oversight.  An application for a no-knock based solely on a CI buy should have been a red flag for this judge (if it's common in Atlanta for no-knocks to be issued with such spare evidence, that's a much larger problem).  For whatever reason, this one got by her.

There's already a problem with judges signing off on warrants without much scrutiny.  If warrant approval has been reduced to nothing more than a daily task of logging on, browsing affidavits, and clicking a "signature" box, you can see how an important, entrusted responsibility could be reduced to something troublingly more mundane.

See previous posts on the Johnston raid here, here, here, and here.

NEXT: Insurgent Republicans

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  1. Since drug warriors and other “law and order” types are often heard advocating taking responsibility for one’s own actions, I expect news of a flurry of resignations in Atlanta any minute now.

    Just kidding.

  2. “Take responsibility” only applies to citizens, don’t you know.

  3. Public officials “take responsibility” all the time, they just skip over the consequences portion. That’s reserved for “civilians”.

  4. You know, maybe I’m jaded and skeptical, but I just don’t see anyone making any changes, no matter how bad it gets.

    And while the cops should be tried, they won’t be.

    Life will go on. The government loves to be tough on drugs, the cops love their money and toys and moms love to think that someone is keeping the kid safe.

  5. The criminal justice system is a slaughterhouse designed to process through as many broke-ass losers as possible, in a manner not unlike chickens at a Tyson plant.

    People with resources like Limbaugh and OJ can gum up the works but you don’t want to look in that hotdog factory, much less get caught up in it.

  6. Thomas Paine’s Goiter | November 28, 2006, 12:26pm
    You know, maybe I’m jaded and skeptical, but I just don’t see anyone making any changes, no matter how bad it gets.

    There will be changes.

    Expect police departments to escalate the amount of violence and firepower used in these raids.

    Becuase if people are still getting killed, and bulletin board commandos talk about fighting back, then they’re obviously not using enough force.

  7. great work, mr. balko.

  8. The criminal justice system is a slaughterhouse designed to process through as many broke-ass losers as possible, in a manner not unlike chickens at a Tyson plant.

    You got that right. Problem is, that is the only way our system could operate, given the huge number of drug offenders it has to process. If the ‘system’ could focus primarily on real criminals, it could possibly function in a just manner.

  9. Keep up the pressure Radley! I am glad that people like you question the PR feeds that the buracracy wants so badly to be true.

  10. I think you have to look at this from the judge’s point of view. The standard for a search warrant is “probable cause”. That means that the government must show that there is probably cause to believe that the search being requested will result in the recovery of evidence relevant to a crime. It is a pretty low standard. Search warrants are granted on documentary evidence alone. If a judge is confronted with an affidavit from Joe Blow swearing that he purchased drugs at a particular house and another affidavit from the police swearing that Joe Blow is a credible informant, the judge really has no choice but to issue the warrant. The judge in this case does not have the time nor the means to investigate Joe Blow’s claim or the credibility of the police’s statements. If Joe Blow is lying or being pressured by the police and the police are lying about his credibility, the judge has no way of knowing it The whole system is built on the police acting in good faith. Basically, the warrant is only as good as the information provided to obtain it. Assuming the police presented the judge with sworn statements that on their face met the requirements of probable cause, this incident is not the judge’s fault.

  11. Keep up the good work, Radley. When I die, I want you to investigate it. Even if the coroner report says something probable, like “choked on bacon” or “passed out and drowned in bucket of own homebrew”

  12. I agree with John for the most part. But I don’t let the judge completely off the hook. The judge signed the warrant, the hands are not clean, albeit they are not as dirty as the informant or the cops involved. The judge was a part of the chain that lead to the incident regardless of doing the job as a judge is charged with doing.

    John points out “good faith” which is required for law enforcement to work. That’s why it is very important to fire anyone who acts in bad faith. Including first timers.

    One lapse in judgement that results in a death can send us to prison. So it should not be an “excuse” for those in uniform.

    I’m not saying the judge made the bad judgement, The judge did what a judge is supposed to do. I can’t say the same for the officers involved.

    This problem can be fixed by the state congress, but I’m sure the politicians don’t want to “look” soft on crime.

  13. an electronic warrant system, where police upload the warrant to a database, then a judge reads and signs it online.

    This kind of system is ripe for abuse. It practically begs for someone to steal the judge’s password, or for the judge to give it to some minion to take care of the paperwork, and voila, you’ve got an automated warrant factory, with no judicial involvement at all. And no way to tell.

  14. I think you have to look at this from the judge’s point of view. The standard for a search warrant is “probable cause”. That means that the government must show that there is probably cause to believe that the search being requested will result in the recovery of evidence relevant to a crime. It is a pretty low standard.
    Okay, I guess this is a dumb question, but why isn’t there a higher standard for a no-knock warrant? Shouldn’t the cops have to present one level of evidence to enter and search, but another (higher) level to justify entering with violence by breaking down the door?

  15. but why isn’t there a higher standard for a no-knock warrant?

    There should be but there really isn’t. Further, even if there is, all the police have to do is add some language about there being guns on the property and viola, the exigent circumstance.

  16. Hey Radley: we all have our pet issues and I’m glad you chose this one. Your bulldog-esque focus on these raids has raised my awareness along with, I’m sure, that of many others.

    Keep up the great work, man.

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