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Breonna Taylor Settlement Drives Push to Ban No-Knock Warrants

Sept. 16, 2020, 9:14 PM

The settlement in the death of Breonna Taylor is putting a spotlight on efforts by civil rights advocates to restrict the use of no-knock warrants by law enforcement.

The fatal shooting of Taylor, a 26-year old Black woman, by Louisville, Ky., police in her apartment during a no-knock raid in March became a flashpoint for the Black Lives Matter movement and drew attention to what critics say is a problematic law enforcement practice. No-knock permits allow law enforcement to enter a residence unannounced.

Experts who spoke to Bloomberg Law said the settlement could encourage other cities to also crack down on no-knock warrants, but added that such changes would be piecemeal, moving at the state or local level, and face resistance from police unions.

“Because we’re in this post-Breonna Taylor and George Floyd era and changes are occurring in ways they haven’t before, this settlement and announcement out of Kentucky may be useful. But, I’m not sure that this is a wave, especially since there will more than likely be police pushback,” said Lenese Herbert, professor at Howard University School of Law and former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.

“This is a step.”

Historic Settlement

The city of Louisville on Tuesday announced a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family and changes to police practices on executing warrants. The settlement is the largest ever in Louisville over a matter involving police misconduct.

The Louisville Metro Council had already voted unanimously to pass “Breonna’s Law” in June, banning no-knock warrants, setting guidelines for how search warrants are executed by the city’s police officers, and requiring active body cameras whenever a warrant is served.

Under the settlement, the city will also create a more stringent review process for search warrants involving police commanders, and overhaul the use of simultaneous warrants. It will also set up an early warning system that tracks use of force complaints against officers.

Louisville will also enact reforms that seek to improve community relations and prevent future police shooting incidents. The plan includes a housing credit program to provide incentives for officers who live in certain low-income areas.

Controversial Tactic

No-knock warrants can lead to a traumatic experience, injuries, and even death for those targeted by raids, Herbert said.

“The whole purpose of these warrants is to distract and disrupt,” she said. “But when cops burst into someone’s home with violence, which is approved by the court, especially at times when people won’t be aware and alert, understand how traumatic that is for those inside and for those who are not involved in criminality.”

The attention on the Breonna Taylor case may not completely eradicate the use of no-knock permits nationally, but it could make it harder for law enforcement in other locations to obtain them, said Jim Cohen, professor at Fordham University School of Law.

“I think you will not get a no-knock warrant approved in the future, except in the case that is carefully limited and thought out,” he said.

“What’s the typical justification for using a no knock warrant? Well it could be that the drugs or whatever are going to go down the toilet. So, you’ve got to say to yourself, do we really care about that? Chances are the police have other evidence that the police can rely on in order to make an arrest and secure a conviction,” he added.

The police must show probable cause for searching someone’s home or business without announcing themselves, such as a threat to officer safety or to evidence, to get approved by a judge or magistrate.

Cohen said the size of the Louisville settlement could likely encourage states and cities to act to address the issue.

“I think this $12 million will cause municipalities to think about no knock warrants and what that entails because for taxpayers, that’s a lot of money,” he said.

Local Action

Most states allow no-knock warrants based on a decision from a judge or magistrate. Florida and Oregon are the only states with statewide bans on these warrants.

Since Taylor’s death there has been new momentum on restricting the practice.

In Virginia, the House of Delegates on Sept. 4 passed a blanket prohibition on the use of no-knock search warrants (H.B. 5099) as part of broader policing reforms. The state Senate on Sept. 10 also passed their own reform legislation (S.B. 5030), which included restrictions on their use.

In Pennsylvania, State Senator Tim Kearney (D) introduced “Breonna’s Law” in August, which would require law enforcement officers to knock and announce themselves when serving a warrant, waiting at least 15 seconds for a response.

Cities are also considering measures.

Aurora, Colo., took up and voted for an ordinance to ban no-knock warrants at a Sept. 14 city council meeting. The provision has to be voted on twice, which could happen by October, according to a spokesperson for the city’s office.

Atlanta’s city council also passed a resolution on Sept. 8 urging Georgia’s legislature to ban no-knock permits.

In Congress, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) unveiled the “Justice for Breonna Taylor Act” (S.3955) in June, intended to ban such warrants across the country.

Police Perspective

Bill Jordan, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said that there are other options to abolishing no-knock permits.

“I’m not sure what the resolution looks like but one avenue or thing or way that might help, for example, could be a similar process that’s been used in different jurisdictions for arrest warrants,” Jordan said.

“The police department and the community leaders can agree on a safe space, sometimes it’s a church parking lot, where the U.S. Marshals or the police department can contact the person directly or a family member or clergy member and say we have the warrant.”

Though criminal justice experts are expecting pushback from police groups, Jordan added that he hasn’t heard any yet.

“I think it’s too early to say,” he said.

“A lot of officers have no problem with very clear and concise guidelines about whether search warrants could be executed in a no knock fashion,” he added. “But, I do think that an absolute ban is something that people should be very careful about instituting.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloombergindustry.com

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