"No-Knock Warrants" and the Destruction of Civil Liberties

Picture this: you’re sitting on your couch, watching TV, unwinding after a long day. Maybe you have your beverage of choice or some snacks. Then, suddenly, your front door bursts open and a group of people in black masks holding guns pour into your house. They’re yelling, and stomping and those guns are pointed directly at you. What’s happening? And what do you do?

What’s happening is the execution of a “no-knock warrant,” a special type of search warrant that allows law enforcement to enter a property without giving any prior warning. Instead of knocking and yelling “Police!” before busting down a door, the police just break in.

American law is based loosely on English Common Law, and the mandate that law enforcement announce themselves before entering a private residence has been around since 1604. In Semayne’s Case, the English court declared that “the house of everyone is to him as his castle and fortress” and that he has a right to defend his house. It also stated that:

“(But) in all cases when the King is party, the Sheriff (if the doors be not open) may break the party's house, either to arrest him, or to do other execution of the K.'s process, if otherwise he cannot enter. But before he breaks it, he ought to signify the cause of his coming, and to make request to open doors.”

In other words, the police have to let you know who they are and what they’re doing before they enter your home. That provision held steady until 1995 when the Supreme Court decided in Wilson v. Arkansas that law enforcement could enter a private residence without announcing themselves if they were worried about the destruction of evidence. Since, no-knock warrants have been on the rise in the United States — sometimes with devastating results.

Take, for example, a January 2019 case in Houston. The New York Times reports that after a no-knock warrant was issued on falsified information, two suspects fired on the police officers as they entered their home and were shot and killed as a result. Four officers were also shot during the confrontation. When the police searched the home, they found “small amounts of cocaine and marijuana” in the house, but no evidence of drug dealing. They later announced that there were “material untruths or lies” in the affidavit that led to the no-knock raid. The Houston Police chief said that no-knock warrants would be prohibited in Houston.

In Georgia, police executed a no-knock warrant after an informant purchased $50 of methamphetamine from a private residence. In that case, the SWAT team broke open the door and threw a flash-bang grenade into the home. It landed in the playpen of a 19-month-old baby, catching the crib, toys, and pillows on fire. The baby lived but sustained “blast burn injuries to the face and chest; a complex laceration of the nose, upper lip and face; 20 percent of the right upper lip missing; the external nose being separated from the underlying bone; and a large avulsion bum injury to the chest with a resulting left pulmonary contusion and sepsis.” No drugs were found.

The Houston and Georgia cases are just two examples of many instances in which both civilians and police officers were wounded or killed during the execution of a no-knock warrant. According to a 2017 investigation, also conducted by The New York Times, “at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officials” died during the execution of no-knock warrants between 2010 and 2016. Those numbers don’t include people who were maimed or wounded.

While the death and maiming and injury should be enough for Americans to oppose no-knock warrants, there’s another element at play here: race. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conducted a study of no-knock warrants in 20 cities and found that 42 percent of people who experienced no-knock warrants were Black, 12 percent were Latino. The Times found that half of the 81 people who were killed during the execution of no-knock warrants were people of color. It’s clear that, like many aspects of American law enforcement, no-knock warrants disproportionately harm people of color.

It’s surprising that these numbers aren’t higher when you consider how many Americans own guns which are easily accessible in their homes. To go back to the initial question in this piece: what would you do if strangers burst into your house with guns in the middle of the night? If you had a gun, you’d probably reach for it. That is, after all, why you own one. So why are we still allowing law enforcement to engage in no-knock warrants?

About the Author

Emma McGowan is a veteran blogger, SFSI-endorsed sex educator, and Bustle's sex advice columnist at Sex IDK. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Startups.co, Unbound, Mashable, Broadly, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, Bedsider, and The Bold Italic. Follow her on Twitter @MissEmmaMcG.