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SWAT

No-Knock Searches: Reasonable or Deadly?

Careful consideration of officer and public safety should precede a request for a no-knock warrant.

March 07, 2011  |  by Alicia Hilton - Also by this author


The fatal shooting of Todd Blair during a no-knock entry by the Weber County (Utah) Sheriff's Office on Sept. 16 has raised questions about a tactic that is much more frequently used today than two decades ago.

Experts who track the use of the tactic say there were 70,000 to 80,000 no-knock raids in 2010, as compared with 2,000 to 3,000 in the mid-1980s. reports USA Today.

Blair was shot and killed during a drug raid conducted by Weber County deputies. Blair's mother and others who criticize the shooting argue that the deputies should have used a lesser level of force to subdue Blair, because he only was holding a golf club and was not armed with a gun or knife. Blair's family has threatened a civil suit. Was the shooting justified?

The Weber County Attorney's Office thinks so. In October, the office concluded an investigation into the shooting and found it justified. A local prosecutor's findings don't preclude a plaintiff from succeeding in a civil suit that alleges police misconduct. However, if Blair's family persists in suing the agency or deputies involved in the raid, and the suit is decided at trial, Blair's family should not be granted relief by the court. Contrary to popular belief, the law does not require officers to use the minimal level of force to subdue a suspect.

If deputies were required to use a "minimal level" of force, it would encourage hesitation. Officers who hesitate can get hurt or killed, and they put bystanders at risk of injury or death. A "minimal level" requirement also encourages a trial-and-error process. The officer might try a "minimal option" such as pepper spray. If that failed, then the officer might try another "minimal option" such as a TASER, and so on. This sort of trial-and-error process can quickly escalate out of control, as the officer uses more force than he would have if he had initially used a level of force that was reasonable.

The Fourth Amendment governs how police officers should conduct searches, and the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation sets the legal standard. The Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor set this standard. The amount of force used to seize a suspect must be "objectively reasonable." When a plaintiff files a civil suit alleging excessive force, the court examines the totality of the facts and circumstances faced by the officer to decide whether the force used to affect a seizure was excessive. 

The factors a court considers include whether a suspect was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, had a known history of violence, was resisting arrest, was attempting to flee, or posed an immediate threat of bodily harm to officers or others.

Examining the totality of the facts and circumstances in the Blair case, it was objectively reasonable for Sgt. Troy Burnett to shoot and kill Blair. Officers who participated in the search were wearing uniforms labeled police. They announced their presence by yelling, "Police search warrant" twice before they entered the home.

Instead of surrendering to the men he must have realized were officers, Blair lurked in a hallway, brandishing a golf club. The officers passed through the living room and were about to enter the hallway when Sgt. Burnett, the lead officer, saw Blair. An officer in Burnett's position reasonably could have concluded that Blair posed an immediate threat because Blair was close enough to strike Burnett with the club.

Furthermore, Blair was an alleged meth user and allegedly had been involved in domestic violence. Experienced officers understand that people under the influence of drugs are more likely to commit an assault. The level of force used by Burnett was objectively reasonable.

Though the shooting was legally justified, if the officers involved in the raid had engaged in more careful planning, Blair's death may have been prevented. Officers had been watching Blair and his associates for months. They could have waited to search the home, when they knew it was empty. And they should have followed their usual department protocol, having an in-office briefing before the raid. Also, it's debatable whether the facts and circumstances of this case justified a no-knock warrant.

Judges can authorize no-knock warrants if law enforcement officers articulate reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing would be futile, dangerous, or would inhibit the investigation. In the Blair case, the destruction of evidence was the rationale for issuing the no-knock warrant.  If instead of conducting a dynamic entry, the officers had knocked, identified themselves, announced that they had a search warrant, demanded entry, and then waited a reasonable time for Blair to open the door, Blair may have come to his senses and surrendered peacefully.

Incidents like the Blair shooting put pressure on judges to deny requests for no-knock warrants. Carefully consider your safety, the welfare of suspects and bystanders, and the integrity of your investigation. Don't ask for a no-knock warrant unless it really is necessary.

Related:

Rules of Engagement

Clearing Up Knock-and-Announce Confusion

Tags: SWAT Tactics, Drug Enforcement, Building Raids, Fourth Amendment, Search and Seizure, Warrant Service


Comments (9)

Displaying 1 - 9 of 9

Daniel A.Prohonic @ 3/7/2011 5:17 PM

It seems that a good portion of the no-knock warrants have become a license for poor planning,ineffective planning,lack of regard for human life and trepidation of becoming injured or receiving injuries and last but not least a license to kill whether it be the bad guy or an innocent homeowner defending his property and there have been a number of those.

Lets face facts,a judge will sign off on any warrant as long as you articulate the facts he wants to hear or read,whether they're real fact or fiction,colorful words will convince him and a homeowner with half a hair will defend his home and family from invasion or intrusion setting the stage for conflict when you come thru the door with a no-knock warrant that you obtained with a gift for gab or word usage that upon closer scrutiny leaves a lot to be desired.I doubt that the whole entry team read the reports or warrant so that if a mistake is made,it is less likely to be found,only the supervisor makes the decision and how many bad addresses were found after the incident.I'm not asking the officers to put themselves at risk,i'm asking for due diligence,like take the man on the street,then raid the house,i doubt very much that he would have the golf club walking down the street.Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.Have his parole officer call him in to discuss a complaint,send him a ficticious cut off notice for a utility,requesting his presence with payment,proof of payment and verifiable id to restore utility,any number of ruses to get him out of house and don't discuss method with the media,don't broadcast your methods,just say he was tricked,use your head,alleviate dangers to everyone.What would you do if somebody knocked down your door,kiss them?I don't think so,you would defend your wife and family,it is instinct,whether you're a bad guy or cop.What if somebody transposed the house numbers on the report and warrant and the house you hit belonged to a married couple both of which were cops

Michael @ 3/7/2011 9:16 PM

This has always been a difficult call. I think no-knock warrants should only be used in special circumstances.....they are used much more today then before. I respect the Fourth Amendment, but I also think more caution and care needs to be used when we are serving warrants. I find that many members of teams don't know anymore then what they were told at the briefing. This to me causes problems each time and we are just lucky when its all over that no officer was injuried or killed. I have been there when the wrong house was entered, that kind of crap should never happen. I know in my house, my wife and I are both LEO and we have weapons close by, it would be our instinct and training to react. We would be protecting our family/home etc....this is a dangerous business we are in and mistakes happen. But, when it comes to serving warrants it can't be careless or rushed.

Max @ 3/8/2011 4:09 AM

a weapon is a weapon. If it was a pot and a pan or a keyboard, There are ways to hurt or kill someone with just about anything. YES, it was justified.

Dennis @ 3/18/2011 12:16 PM

Has the author or the other people who posted comments ever been the first person through the door on a warrant? I have numerous times both for No-Knock and Knock and announce warrants. No-Knock warrants are for the safety of the officers going in and for the safety of the people inside. Most people was we make entry and annouce who we are and why we are there. (ie POLICE, SEARCH WARRANT) comply and do not try to confront us. There have been times that there are poeple who become stand-offish. Most of those incidents have been during " Knock and announce warrants" I believe this due to the person knowing we are outside and we are coming in. Now he/she has time to react and destroy evidence or get a weapon and or set up an ambush. The "No-knock" warrant gives us (the operators) the element of surprise and dones not give the person much time to think and react. I can think of numerous mission were the surprise and violence of actions have saved us harm and injury as well as the people inside the home. When asked one suspect why he didn't reach for the SKS assualt rifle which was right behind him he stated " I had no time and before i could react you guys were on me." Also my team members are part of and lead any planning for the mission. We have final say! Just a thought from a guy who goes in first most times.

Kaela @ 4/1/2011 12:15 PM

The word "alleged" was used to describe Blairs drug use and history of violence. Was there any actual evidence, or were the police relying on the sketchy word of a neighbor's friend who had never met Blair? You say he "lurked" in the hallway and "brandished" the Golf club, when a tiny amount of conjecture could explain why someone would be STANDING in their hallway and HOLDING a golf club. Plus, if you try and yell trough someone's door, who's to say they can actually hear you before they bust in, and if they aren't expecting someone to knock down their door, can you blame them for picking up a weapon of some kind to protect themselves from a home invasion?

Shooting and killing people should not be considered a learning experience or grounds for an "I'll do better next time". Even criminals are human beings with families, and if you didn't kill them they may have the opportunity to show you that.

Bill @ 4/11/2011 12:52 PM

No, it wasn't justified by any stretch of the imagination. Alicia and Robert are just two more apologists for the police state we find ourselves in today. And they wonder why the public no longer respects them.

As for some of the comments, well, they just provide more proof of this disconnect. One commenter said "us operators". He is obviously an immature fool who wants to play GI Joe with his fellow citizens, sick. He is one who should not be in police work.

Cops are civilians just like the rest of us, and you used to be better at doing your jobs with intelligence, respect and compassion. Now your ranks are filled with perverts, wanna be commandos and psychopaths. It is a sad day for what once was a respected career.

Heather @ 5/1/2011 1:05 AM

Yelling get on the ground after shooting someone is bad timing. Maybe a drop your weapon command would have spared a family from grief, and the publicity of not finding the evidence to support the raid. This man had last been charged in 2003. Nonviolent record, and there are plenty of drug busts in the same local county that no one gets hurt, but they do find a real drug bust.

Joel @ 2/3/2012 2:11 PM

I find it absolutely disgusting that officers are not required to use minimum force. As a prior member of the military, I was trained on the legal use of force every time I qualified with a weapon, and for me, despite the considerably higher stakes, minimum force was the law.

I also take offense to the term "operator" being used in reference to LEOs. I am not, and have never been, an operator, but I've worked directly with some of them. They train several magnitudes harder than any LEO I've ever seen and have to show much greater restraint considering the vast array of heavy weapons and fire support they have at their disposal. If I recall correctly, the most dangerous man in the world was killed by an operator with only 2 rounds, 1 to the chest and 1 to the head.

I haven't even started to talk about how no-knock warrants are in direct disagreement to 500 years of castle-doctrine precedent (which is now effectively void). In reality, if a person attempts to defend themselves from an unidentified (yelling "police" and "search warrant" is not sufficient identification since any English-speaking criminal can do the exact same thing) , heavily-armed assailant in their own home (not breaking any laws at this point and presumed to be innocent of whatever crime the police suspect him of committing), police are given a blanket waiver to kill him, and further, if he defends himself it is considered murder. If that is not a police state, I don't know what is.

Curt @ 5/31/2014 5:12 AM

Notice how Dennis multiple times listed the safety of officers before the safety of others in justifying no-knock warrants. That's the mentality that bothers me. Whatever happened to "Protect and Server"? I have a family member who is an LEO and hope he's safe on the job, but if you choose this profession the safety of the citizens you SERVE should be paramount.
I also agree 1000% with Joel. Now we have a baby laying in a hospital with his face and chest split opened from a botched raid to arrest someone on a drug offense. Yet as usual no one will be held criminally or personally liable for screwing up. Again, lets but officer safety and the arrest AHEAD of the safety of others. And if anything is done, it'll be at the taxpayers expense. Enough with these no-knock warrants and LEOs that are too incompetent to do their job right. God bless those LEOs that do the right thing and give a darn about the folks they serve!

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