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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


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