So-called “no-knock” search warrants — a tool used with increasing frequency since the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act greatly expanded their availability — have proved extremely dangerous to civilians on the receiving end of such actions. A scandal involving the use of such a warrant earlier this year in Houston, Texas, however, illustrates just how dangerous these situations can be to everyone involved, including the law enforcement officers executing such warrants; especially if undertaken with little or no regard for truth or accountability.
In January, 59-year old Navy veteran Dennis Tuttle and his wife were suddenly shaken by the sound of their front door being smashed in. What happened next left both Tuttle and his wife dead from gunshot wounds, and five Houston police officers injured. The police had been hoping to find large quantities of heroin in the Tuttle’s home. What they came away with — in addition to two human beings shot dead, five officers injured, and one pet dog killed — was a small amount of drugs.
Most tragically, however, is the fact this surprise raid appears to have been based not on facts, but on false statements made by Gerald Goines, the officer in charge of the operation, in order to secure permission from the judge to carry out the no-knock operation. The human tragedy of this operation is compounded in the refusal by the Houston Police Department to admit error, accept responsibility, and improve procedures going forward. Moreover, and in a move clearly designed to further shield the police department from responsibility, Police Chief Art Acevedo used the tragedy as a pretext to blame insufficient “gun control” in testimony before a congressional committee just days later.
Standard and constitutionally-based procedures for executing search warrants require the officers involved to announce their presence before entering the premises to be searched or in which a suspect is to be arrested. Furthermore, and in order for the suspect or suspects opportunity to challenge the constitutional propriety of the search, the police are required to leave a written inventory of items seized.Exceptions to these rules appropriately address circumstances such as when pre-entry announcement would pose a clear danger to the police or a hostage, would result in vital evidence being destroyed, or would put at risk an important and continuing investigation.
No-knock exceptions to standard search warrant procedures, however, have been expanded statutorily by the USA PATRIOT Act and by police procedures in many jurisdictions that have come to rely increasingly on SWAT team-type searches, even in circumstances that carry little if any expectation of violence. While the avowed purpose for such expansion has been to address searches conducted within the context of terrorism investigations, in recent years, the exceptions have come to swallow the rule.
Criminologist Peter Kraska estimated in 2006 that over a 25-year period, the use of no-knock warrants increased from 3,000 in 1981 to more than 50,000. The New York Times also found that no-knock raids from 2010 to 2016 resulted in the deaths of at least 94 people, including 13 police officers. This data suggests the incident in Houston is far from unusual.
As Washington Post columnist Radley Balko, a dogged watchdog of police abuse, noted in his column last month, the dangers of no-knock raids “create violence and confrontation where there was none before...sow confusion and chaos, and thus have a very thin margin for error.” Balko concluded that this, in combination with intentionally bad information from criminal informants (along with corruption such as in the Houston incident), produce results that are increasingly dangerous for civilians and police.
Yet, instead of serving as a lesson in bad policing practices, the death and destruction from no-knock warrants have bolstered calls from many police chiefs, including Houston’s, for more stringent gun control generally. This blame-shifting makes it more difficult to correct abuses such as apparently occurred in the lead-up to the botched Tuttle raid in Houston, and thereby further endangers both police and civilians.
Mandating “universal background checks” for all firearms transactions, or making it easier for judges to issue orders seizing a person’s firearm(s) because they might in the future commit a violent act — measures currently under consideration by the Congress — have nothing whatever to do with the issue at hand; despite Acevedo’s attempt to make it appear so.
The relevant and important issue which Congress as well as state and local governments should be addressing in the wake of the tragic no-knock raid in Houston, is how to protect against the minority of police departments that refuse to hold their officers accountable, or that fail to properly train officers in how to plan and conduct search warrants in the first place.
There is a proper role for the federal government in this process, by tracking, highlighting and limiting such abuses; but it is not to further curtail the ability of law-abiding citizens to exercise their rights guaranteed to them by the Second Amendment.
While far from the only recent example of a no-knock raid gone tragically wrong, the Houston example should serve as a clear warning sign that no-knock raids are in need of immediate and serious reform. And these efforts must not be permitted to be obscured by disingenuous efforts by the gun-control lobby or by the few “bad apples” like Goines and Acevedo, to further the gun-control agenda always lurking in the shadows of any tragedy involving the use of a firearm.