Opinion: No-knock warrants endanger citizens, police

Molly Davis

Breonna Taylor was shot to death by police in her own home on March 13 in Louisville, Kentucky. And she has yet to receive justice. She was the victim of a legal police operation: the “no-knock” warrant, which allows law enforcement to forcefully enter a person’s home without announcing their presence.

This tactic startles people into unplanned reactions, resulting in the deaths of police and bystanders alike. They’re currently legal in Michigan — but they shouldn’t be.

Louisville’s Mayor recently signed “Breonna’s Law,” restricting the use of no knock warrants in the city on June 12. On the Congressional level, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said banning no-knock warrants is among reforms Democrats are considering. Michigan’s Legislature should follow suit and ban the practice on the state level.

To prevent further fatalities and uphold justice for Breonna, Michigan should adopt strict restrictions on all types of search warrants, Davis writes.

According to a study from St. John’s Law Review, “Between 2010 and 2016, at least 94 people died during the execution of no-knock search warrants, 13 of whom were police officers.” And that’s not hard to believe when you think about how these surprise visits play out.

Take Matthew Stewart, for example, who was asleep in his Utah home on the night of January 4, 2012, when the sound of breaking glass startled him awake, according to an account from his sister. Thinking he was being robbed, he jumped out of bed, threw on his robe and grabbed his gun to defend himself.

Stewart said that after being shot at, he shot back, killing one of several plain-clothed officers who began shooting — and injuring several others. After being arrested for murder and branded as a “cop killer,” Stewart committed suicide in jail. 

In his case, the officers had obtained a no-knock warrant to search his home on suspicion of marijuana possession. One officer was wearing a Cheech and Chong shirt, and the rest were mostly dressed in blue jeans and windbreakers “bearing small police shield emblems.”

They likely weren’t expecting violence and should have announced themselves and given Stewart proper time to wake up, get dressed, and answer the door. But the no-knock warrant allowed them to bypass this announcement and put everyone’s lives at risk, including their own.

In Taylor’s case, the officers claimed they identified themselves, but did they give her enough time to respond?

Utah police served a knock-and-announce warrant on a suspected meth-dealer’s residence in 2010 that exemplifies the need for regulation. Police knocked three times in a row, and promptly burst inside, where they quickly shot Todd Blair in the head and chest after seeing him pick up a golf club in apparent self defense. It turns out Blair was not a meth dealer — his roommate was. 

Police could have given Blair sufficient time to answer, or run and hide — either of which would have been better than a chaotic encounter. 

But they didn’t. 

Police should have to give a person at least one minute to answer the door before bursting through, guns blazing. And all warrants should be executed during daylight hours, when people are functioning at full capacity. Otherwise, tragedies like Taylor’s and Blair’s will continue to happen. 

States should also require police to wear functioning body cameras during every search. Video was extremely important in determining the facts of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s cases. But during unexpected searches, individuals may not be able to grab their phone — or they won’t, for fear of it being mistaken as a weapon. Instead, police cameras should be rolling during every warrant.

To prevent further fatalities and uphold justice for Taylor, Michigan should adopt strict restrictions on all types of search warrants. Invading an individual’s personal space is a risky job, no matter how small the crime being investigated.

Police must use all caution and good judgement. Death comes knocking when they don’t.

Molly Davis is a criminal justice policy analyst at Libertas Institute and a consumer freedom fellow at Young Voices.