The detective rapped on the front door. Then three seconds later, instead of waiting for a resident to answer, one of the officers on his team kicked in the door.
They had expected to find a meth lab in the apartment, but the man and woman they'd awakened in the middle of the night and handcuffed had committed no crimes. The officers had raided the wrong apartment.
The couple retained legal counsel and asserted multiple Section 1983 claims against the detective, his team of officers, their department, the mayor, and other government officials. After extensive litigation, the court of appeals held that the detective was not entitled to qualified immunity. So his failure to ascertain the proper target of the warrant and his failure to follow the knock-and-announce rule jeopardized his career and crippled his personal finances.
By understanding the knock-and-announce rule, you can prevent this from happening to you.
Wrong and Dangerous
Some police departments have interpreted the Supreme Court's recent Hudson v. Michigan ruling as a license to execute warrants without knocking, announcing, and waiting a reasonable amount of time for a resident to answer the door before entering. That interpretation is both wrong and dangerous.
Failure to adhere to the requirements of the knock-and-announce rule can result in terrible tragedy and extremely expensive litigation. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is the Nov. 21, 2006, shooting death of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a botched no-knock drug raid by officers from the Atlanta Police Department.
To cover up the fact that Johnston was innocent, the investigators who had executed the search planted marijuana at her home and later attempted to coerce an informant to claim that he had purchased cocaine at her home.
The results have been devastating for the Atlanta PD. On April 26, 2007, two of the officers who performed the illegal search pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, perjury, and other criminal charges. The drug informant who was coerced by the officers plans to sue the department and the city. The investigation into the shooting of Kathryn Johnston and other possible related acts of law enforcement misconduct is ongoing.
Let's take a detailed look at the knock-and-announce rule and discuss when and why you can be sued for failing to knock and announce.
This is Nothing New
The requirement that law enforcement officers must knock and announce their presence before entering a residence is not a new rule. Under the common law, police officers could not forcibly enter a residence to execute a search warrant unless they first knocked at the door, identified themselves as officers of the law, articulated their reason for requesting admittance into the home, and were refused admittance.
This requirement was clarified in the 1995 Supreme Court case Wilson v. Arkansas in which the Court unanimously held that the common law knock-and-announce "principle forms a part of the reasonableness inquiry under the Fourth Amendment." Therefore, "the reasonableness of a search of a dwelling may depend in part on whether law enforcement officers announced their presence and authority prior to entering."
Proponents of the knock-and-announce rule assert that 1) it protects life and limb because a resident may mistake an unannounced police entry for a criminal invasion and brandish a weapon in defense; 2) it protects property by giving the occupant the opportunity to admit the officers; 3) and it protects privacy and preserves dignity by reducing the risk that the police will enter the wrong residence and even when there was no mistake about the place to be searched, permits those within to have a brief notice to prepare for the police entry. For example, if officers knock and announce their presence, a nude resident might have time to don a robe before officers enter his bedroom.
Even when the entry is made without force such as when the door to the residence is not locked or an apartment manager agrees to open the door, you must ordinarily observe the requirement to knock and announce before entering. Some courts have even ruled that you must first announce your presence before entering a wide open door.