Drug Policy

Georgia's Proposed No-Knock Law

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Last week, Jacob Sullum and I were in Atlanta for an ACLU conference on the use of drug informants. The same day of the conference, a committee in the Georgia state senate unanimously passed a bill that its sponsors claim will rein in the abuse of no-knock warrants in the state (I cautiously welcomed the bill here ).

The night the bill was passed, I spoke with its sponsor, Sen. Vincent Fort. The good news is, Sen. Fort is genuinely committed to wiping out the use of no-knock raids, save for cases where the suspect poses an imminent threat to the community (think fugitives, hostage takings, etc.). In fact (self promotion alert) he plans to order a copy of my Overkill paper for every member of the Georgia legislature before the bill comes to a vote.

The bad news is, the bill was amended and watered down to the point that in its current form it won't do much at all to end the excesses associated with forced entry raids. In fact, had the bill been in place last year, it's unlikely that it would have prevented the Kathryn Johnston raid, which is the reason it was introduced and passed in the first place.

There are several problems with the bill, including:

· The bill only covers no-knock warrants. The problem is, the differences between a no-knock and a knock-and-announce warrant are virtually nil. In fact, the very night I talked with Sen. Fort, I also spoke to a former police officer, prosecutor, and now defense attorney in Texas. Like every police officer with whom I've spoken candidly about this issue, he confirmed the fact that the required "announcement" the police typically give in these raids is merely a ritual. Sometimes it's made as the door is coming down. It's often made while the suspect is sleeping. From the perspective of the people inside the home—people like Kathryn Johnston, for whom it would have made a huge difference to know if the people outside were cops or criminals—there's no difference at all between "no-knock" and "knock-and-announce." Remember, the police claim they did knock and announce before entering Johnston's house (though just about everything these particular cops say at this point is suspect).

A better bill would cover all forced-entry, paramilitary-style raids, not just no-knocks.

· Even with respect to no-knocks, the bill is far too vague. While it does require that police show "probable cause" of a suspect's threat to public safety in order to secure a no-knock, that really only brings Georgia in line with the rest of the country, where there are still routine abuses. Fort's original bill demanded the more stringent "clear and convincing evidence" standard. Fort tells me his lawyers tell him that a police officer need only show evidence that a suspect might have a gun in the home to get a no-knock under the new bill. That almost certainly means the officers in the Johnston case would have gotten their warrant under the new law, where they alleged both guns and a video surveillance system.

· The new law also grants an exception in cases where police can show probable cause that a suspect might dispose of drug evidence if police were to knock and announce themselves. Between this and the public safety component, this bill is really no more stringent than the vast majority of no-knock requirements in the rest of the country. Ironically, this exception makes it easier to obtain no-knock warrants against small-time drug offenders (those with a stash small enough to be flushed in a matter of seconds) than big-time dealers (whose stash is too large to be easily disposed of). A more sensible law would acknowledge that if a suspect has a small enough supply of dope to be flushed in the seconds between announcement and entry, you probably aren't dealing with the kind of dangerous criminal worthy of a violent forced-entry raid in the first place.

Bottom line? This bill is a tough-sounding piece of legislation that will really make no difference whatsoever in how Georgia police obtain warrants for and execute paramilitary-style raids. It almost certainly wouldn't have prevented the Johnston raid. There's no language in it to reform the deeply flawed drug informant system that allowed the Johnston raid to happen; to provide for oversight of the cops, judges, and prosecutors that have been lax in applying for and approving these warrants all over Atlanta; or to restrict invasive police raids to situations where they're ameliorating violence instead of creating it.

Give points to Sen. Fort for his effort, and for his success in bringing Georgia Republicans on board at least in talking about the right to be secure in one's home. But this bill is lots of bark, and very little bite.

If Georgia lawmakers are going to pass legislation in response to the Johnston raid, they should at least pass reforms that would have prevented the woman's death in the first place.

NEXT: The Day The Dolphin Cried

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  1. If it makes it harder for the cops to do no knock warrents then it is not good. Anything that makes it harder for the police to keep us all off drugs is inherintly a bad idea, I’m not for it.

  2. Radley,

    How’d you like the ATL? Saw your bleg on The Agigator and meant to tell you that’s it’s a far better city for living than visiting. Also, you really, really need a car.

  3. Radley-

    Thanks for all your work. Never thought I’d be on the side I am today, but things change quickly when it affects a family member. Can you tell me a little more on what the ACLU had to say about the use of drug informants? It was a drug informant that was used to obtain the warrant that got my cousin killed.

  4. I want the old Juanita back–the one who had a decent grasp of grammar and spelling.

  5. I can deal with the bad spelling and grammar, it’s the cutting and pasting from one thread to another that is irritating the fuck out of me.

  6. whoa. I definitely thought the squirrels were fucking with me when I found a comment posted by me on another thread here. Turns out it was just a troll dressed up like a squirrel.

  7. Last week, Jacob Sullum and I were in Atlanta for an ACLU conference on the use of drug informants.

    Are those the four page, 50,000 word, 0.25 pt font, documents that the pharmacist wads up and shoves in with your prescription? The ones that half way down page three in the second sub-paragraph includes the sentence “When ingested in conjunction with high fructose corn syrup results in testicular withering in 48.5% of all patients”? It’s about time somebody held a conference on those things 😛

    Hi Wanko!

  8. Turns out it was just a troll dressed up like a squirrel.

    No troll. Joke! I make joke. All fun. We laugh! Ha! Ha! You get?

  9. Question: what % of paramilitary style police raids result in an innocent person being killed or arrested? The fact that mistakes are made from time to time may not be worth scrapping an effective police technique over. We need to know how often they happen.

  10. Dan T,

    You’re absolutely right that we don’t need to scrap an effective technique due to a few mistakes. The problem is that this technique is now being expanded beyond its original scope (where it generally *is* effective) to cover more and more mundane cases that are better served with a more non-violently confrontational approach.

    Against a rabid psycopath holding a hostage a forced entry is entirely appropriate – against a *possible* small time dopehead its not, no matter even if no-one is ever injured.

  11. Wrong Dan. Sorry, try again next time. While acceptable civilian losses may (stress “may”) be acceptable in a war, there are no such thing as acceptable losses when we are talking about law abiding citizens, murdered by police in their own home. Much like there are no acceptable death sentences for people wrongly convicted of a crime.

    Nick

  12. They would have passed real reforms had it been any of the politicians mother or family you can bet your ass on that one. Another case of look we are doing something look at us aren’t we great only to in fact in the end be doing nothing, fanfuckingtastic!

    Why are the only laws that seem to really do anything are the ones that strip us of our rights an raise our taxes? How come those don’t get watered down to the point they are of no use? I guess watering those down affects their ability to take our money and make us beholden to the state as our care takers. After all that is whats really important, do it for the children.

  13. Dan T.,
    Who says it is an “effective” technique? Look at the Johnston case. An informant tells the police he bought dope from “a man” in her house, that “he” is armed and has security cameras. They did zero corroborating research to back it up and charged in guns a blazing. Most of the victims of drug raids gone bad could have been apprehended in a non-conflicting manner.

    I have a problems with no-knock raids but not for truly SWAT worthy endeavors like hostage situations. However a “dynamic entry” raid on a residence, for a drug bust, utilizing uncorroborated information is foolish and dangerous to all parties involved, police and citizens alike. That is not effective, it is dumb.

  14. I love that it is Agammamon Hectoring Dan about a Trojan Horse.

  15. A more sensible law would acknowledge that if a suspect has a small enough supply of dope to be flushed in the seconds between announcement and entry, you probably aren’t dealing with the kind of dangerous criminal worthy of a violent forced-entry raid in the first place.

    Radley, Radley. Using “sensible” and “law” in the same sentence? Really.

    Question: what % of paramilitary style police raids result in an innocent person being killed or arrested?

    How many result in innocent people having their doors broken in, their carpets ruined by flash-bang grenades, their dogs killed, their children terrorized, and so forth? How many damage the homes of innocent people and terrorize them because they live in the same home as the target of the raid? How many terrorize and endanger neighbors? How many result in the above when the offense committed rates a maximum $500 fine?

    The fact that mistakes are made from time to time may not be worth scrapping an effective police technique over.

    The fact that such mistakes are fatal does. The fact that there’s no attempt to correct behavior leading to the mistakes does. (I.e. the unsupported use of unreliable informants.) The fact that the technique is far more dangerous than most of the people it’s used on are, does.

    We need to know how often they happen.

    Balco has already cited enough cases to know it’s too many.

  16. Rev. Alan Bean had a guest blog write up of the ACLU informant conference here, for those interested.

    And Radley – if the GA legislation is inadequate, is there legislation on no-knock raids out there you’d consider a model?

    best,

  17. Dan T., why is a so-called liberal like yourself so supportive of the War on Drugs?

  18. Dan – To piggy-back on LarryA’s point, I think your point would be much stronger if, after a deadly or inappropriate raid, police chiefs and officials would say, “Whoa, we really screwed up. We’re going to figure out where the problem is and correct it. And we’re going to fire/discipline whomever was responsible. And we’re going to fix this person’s house, buy them a dog and provide a grief counselor.”

    However, the stock response is, “This was unfortunate, but everything was done by the book. All officers followed our policies/procedures/protocol.”

    “Really? The officer that got an anonymous tip about a house and decided to raid it without even staking it out to look for drug activity? Then he killed that innocent old lady’s dog? Even that guy followed protocol?”

    “Yes, even that guy.”

    That makes me think that the protocol is not effective, but is actually seriously flawed. If after a raid like that, the cops claim it was done by the book, then we need to change the book.

  19. On a related note, (I live in Atlanta) I watched a Sunday news story about a weekend raid in Atlanta on a pool hall to arrest a bunch of men suspected of gambling.. and of course ALL of the officers were outfitted in full military/SWAT uniforms and weaponry. No knock or not… those gamblers are a dangerous bunch…

    CB

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