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No-knock warrants under scrutiny following high-profile incidents

  • 4 min to read
20200801-nws-noknockwarrants

Francie Steen speaks in her apartment in 2018. The apartment, at Courtyard Apartments in Anderson, had been damaged when police searched it with a no-knock warrant in February that year.

ANDERSON — Two years ago, police officers dressed in camouflage and armed with assault rifles burst through the door of Francie Steen’s apartment without warning.

Anderson Police Department officers had requested a “no-knock” warrant while investigating a November 2017 shooting at the Quick Stop Marathon gas station at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Madison Avenue.

But neither suspect later arrested in connection with the shooting — Dominique Q. Brisker, 25, and Deonta Wayne Anderson, 27 — was at Steen’s apartment. None of the evidence cited in obtaining the warrant was present.

“They never told me nothing,” Steen later told The Herald Bulletin in describing what happened. “They never showed me nothing.”

The middle-of-the-night episode on Feb. 1, 2018, resulted in a sliding glass door being broken, as well as the seizure of two cellphones and a computer tablet that Steen’s nephew and grandson had received as Christmas gifts.

Steen later filed a federal complaint against an Anderson police detective in U.S. District Court. Steen and the City of Anderson agreed to a $29,000 settlement in October 2018.

The incident prefigured a more prominent conversation, both locally and nationally, about the hazards of no-knock warrants — so named because they allow law enforcement officers to enter a residence or property without immediate prior notification to residents, such as knocking or ringing a doorbell.

Anger over the killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker in Louisville, Kentucky, by police officers executing a no-knock warrant has fueled protests and accelerated efforts to persuade lawmakers to reconsider their validity as an investigative tool. Several police departments, including Indianapolis, have independently chosen to stop authorizing the warrants.

“It’s a valid question,” said state Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, who is among several legislators who have called on Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to convene a special session of the General Assembly to discuss a variety of police reform issues, including no-knock warrants.

“Have they outlived their usefulness? Do they create more problems than they solve? It creates a highly combustible and dangerous situation for both the police and the inhabitants of the premises that’s being subjected to the search. I just think it’s time to really take a look at the practice and ask, what is the value of it?”

Lindsay Brown, a concerned citizen, has asked the Anderson City Council to consider an ordinance outlining specific guidelines for the behavior of police officers, including a prohibition on no-knock warrants. Brown has also been named to a special committee tasked with addressing issues related to police reform.

“This is a community thing,” Brown said. “Change is coming down the pipeline. You’re starting to see police departments, including the Indianapolis Police Department, make these changes. It seems like everybody’s making changes except for Anderson. It shouldn’t be that way.”

RARE CASES

Although no statistics exist for requests and executions of no-knock warrants locally, according to Madison County Court Administrator Jim Hunter, law enforcement officials say instances involving the warrants are rare. Prosecutor Rodney Cummings estimates that in 2019, his office handled approximately 360 search warrants, and “four or five” of them were no-knock warrants.

“These days a lot of them are for cellphones,” Cummings said. “Cellphones are so prevalent now, everybody has one, and they’re a big part of the evidence that we collect in cases. Pursuant to the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s ruling a couple years ago, we now have to have search warrants to get into the phones.”

Cummings said last year his office prepared 181 search warrants for the Anderson Police Department and about the same number for the other 17 police agencies in the county combined.

There are several reasons for the relative scarcity of no-knock warrants. In Madison County and many other places, a relatively high bar of legitimacy is in place to even obtain a warrant. The prosecutor’s office must agree with a police agency on the need for such a warrant; and in requesting the warrant from a judge, Cummings said, his office needs to show compelling justification for it.

“Primarily it’s safety of officers and destruction of evidence,” he said. “If there’s sufficient evidence based upon what the police know – that somehow the officers’ safety will be compromised or evidence will be destroyed – if there’s evidence of that, the judges will usually grant that.”

CHECKS AND BALANCES

Other local law enforcement officials say that, although the warrants are rarely requested and even more rarely granted, they have value in helping police do their job safely and effectively.

Madison County Sheriff Scott Mellinger acknowledges that the discretion to seek a no-knock warrant is a vital tool for law enforcement because in some cases, there is urgency to confiscate evidence that could be destroyed.

However, Mellinger, a former director of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy who has also served in the Indiana Legislature, said he doesn’t necessarily support no-knock warrants across the board and welcomes a discussion on if — or how — their use should be further restricted or banned.

“We do have that layer of checks and balances of the prosecutor and the courts looking at it,” he said. “I personally would favor the Legislature legislating prohibition of no-knock warrants versus an agency-by-agency approach. It would sure take away the second-guessing.

“On the other hand, the Legislature could, if they took the proper time and included all the stakeholders, they could come up with another layer or two to add to the checks and balances. I kind of expect that to happen, either locally or statewide, that policies will change to add a layer or two of justification for no-knock warrants.”

WEIGHING THE RISKS

Any of the six judges on the Madison Circuit Courts can give final authorization for authorities to carry out a no-knock warrant. A decision to do so isn’t taken lightly. Recent national events, including the Taylor incident in Louisville, have reminded them of the stakes that can be involved.

“I think that any time a judge is executing a warrant, there’s always some analysis being done on the possibility of harm, not only to those that the warrant may be being served upon, but also with respect to law enforcement safety,” said Circuit Court 1 Judge Angela Warner Sims. “I think it’s always a concern. It’s something certainly that I think about when I’m executing warrants, particularly in the middle of the night.”

Sims and Circuit Court 4 Judge David Happe handle the majority of no-knock warrant requests from Cummings’ office. Each of them recalls granting only a handful of such requests in their time on the bench. Sims said she can think of “two, maybe three” in nearly eight years. Happe remembered “just a couple of incidents” in 11 years when he has signed off on no-knock warrants.

“I think myself and other judges who authorize these recognize that they’re inherently risky,” Happe said.

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter

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or call 765-640-4809.

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