To Knock or Not to Knock? No-Knock Warrants and Confrontational Policing

By Dolan, Brian | St. John's Law Review, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

To Knock or Not to Knock? No-Knock Warrants and Confrontational Policing


Dolan, Brian, St. John's Law Review


introduction

Around 4 a.m. on December 5, 2017, a team of New York City police officers, armed with a no-knock search warrant, broke down ninety-two year-old Natalio Conde's front door without warning and began methodically searching his Bronx apartment.2 Waking to the sound of people moving around his home, Mr. Conde, in poor health and in no condition to tussle with intruders, became frightened and remained in bed, motionless.3 From his bed, Mr. Conde saw a man pushing his brother-in-law, 69-year-old Mario Sanabria, into the room.4 Mr. Conde heard his brother-in-law ask, "What's happening?" and then heard a shot.5 The shot hit Mr. Sanabria in the chest and killed him.6

A few months earlier, during the predawn hours of July 26, 2017, federal agents, armed with a no-knock search warrant, picked the lock on the front door of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's home in Alexandria, Virginia, and raided the house.7 In the wake of the raid, a number of commentators expressed concern about the use of no-knock warrants in connection with white-collar investigations.8 Since the Manafort raid, these commentators have described no-knock warrants as a "shock and awe" tactic,9 as a tool that strikes terror in people's hearts,10 and as more appropriate for going after organized crime syndicates than white-collar criminals.11 Echoing these sentiments, Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, described the Manafort raid as "gratuitous" and "excessive," and stated that "no-knock warrants were designed primarily for dangerous drug dealers."12 Moreover, he went on to say, "what did they think he was going to do? Try to flush his laptop down the toilet or meet them at the door with a Glock?"13 Others expressed the belief that obtaining a no-knock search warrant is particularly difficult and that magistrates subject search warrant applications to a great deal of scrutiny.14 Finally, some suggested that no-knock warrants are typically only used in the most serious criminal investigations.15

It is puzzling that the use of a no-knock warrant against Manafort drew such condemnation because the only remarkable thing about the raid is how smoothly it went. There was no property damage, nobody was injured or killed, and no shots were fired.16 While the relatively tame Manafort raid garnered widespread attention from various corners of the legal profession17-no doubt because Manafort is a powerful, well-connected member of the Washington establishment-the Conde raid primarily drew condemnation from family members of the victim.18

The above comments thus raise several issues regarding the use of no-knock search warrants, which this Note discusses in detail. First, no-knock warrants are, in general, gratuitous and excessive, regardless of whether the target of the search is a member of our society's elite class like Manafort, or is an ordinary citizen like Conde, because their execution involves a substantial risk of violence to both homeowners and law enforcement.19 Between 2010 and 2016, at least ninety-four people died during the execution of no-knock search warrants, thirteen of whom were police officers.20 Nevertheless, the comments above suggest no-knock warrants are only gratuitous and excessive when used against well-heeled individuals suspected of white-collar crimes, such as Manafort, but that the risks are justified when investigating drug dealers and other more "dangerous" criminals. Second, Professor Turley's comments directly conflate drug dealers with violence and danger to police-a relationship that is not supported by empirical evidence.21 Despite the lack of empirical support, the presumption that drugs and violence are directly related is deeply rooted in our society,22 and this partially explains why no-knock warrants are frequently used when police search for drugs.23 Finally, the above comments suggest that applications for no-knock warrants are put under much greater judicial scrutiny than is actually the case. …

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