Breonna Taylor was shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky during the execution of a no-knock search warrant on her residence. This means the judge signing the warrant gave police permission to break into Ms. Taylor's residence to search it without first announcing their presence and purpose to the people inside.
Police chose to execute this warrant in the middle of the night. Officers did not announce their presence but began banging loudly on the door. Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, according to Mr. Walker, repeatedly asked who was banging on their door. Then men wearing plain clothes instead of police uniforms broke into the apartment with a battering ram. Mr. Walker fired a shot at the men breaking into the apartment. In my opinion, Mr. Walker would have been justified in shooting at an intruder under these circumstances. How was he to know they were police officers? The officer's reaction to his shot exemplifies a common problem--police cannot be relied upon to react conservatively when threatened, even when they themselves create the threat.
Police executed the warrant with the express intention of surprising the occupants. The surprise is purportedly necessary to prevent destruction of evidence by the occupants in the moments between police announcing their presence and their entrance into a residence. The element of surprise, however, puts officers and civilians in danger for the sake of saving drugs from being flushed down the toilet. Both civilians and police are forced to make difficult decisions while in fear for their lives and while holding loaded firearms.
No-knock warrants have historically been disfavored, if not illegal, all over the United States. There are situations in which police are allowed to go into a residence without announcing themselves first, but those circumstances apparently did not exist at Breonna Taylor's apartment on March 13, 2020.
Even though Kentucky law permits a court to issue a no-knock warrant, the warrant in that particular case was not properly issued. One justification to issue a no-knock warrant in a state that allows one is if there is reason to believe the occupants would destroy evidence if they had warning of the officers' presence. No such reason was articulated in the application for this search warrant, to my knowledge.
How Florida Compares
Florida is one of two states in the United States that prohibits the issuance of no-knock warrants. This ban was originally issued in the 1994 Florida Supreme Court case of State v. Bamber and was later enacted by statute. This means that a judge cannot issue a search warrant that authorizes police to enter a residence without first announcing their presence.
Police are still able to execute a search warrant without knocking on the door, however, provided one of the exceptions applies: (1) the person inside the home already knows police are there with a search warrant; (2) police reasonably believe a person inside the home is in imminent peril of bodily harm; or (3) if the danger to the police officer would be increased by knocking on the residence and stating his purpose for being there; or (4) people inside the residence are engaged in activities leading police to believe they are attempting to escape or destroy evidence. A warrant to search for drugs does not grant blanket authorization to execute a search warrant in a no-knock fashion.
Knocking on a residence before breaking in to conduct a search serves important purposes. It provides the chance for the person inside the house to comply with a search warrant willingly. This avoids violence and destruction of property caused by a forced police entry. The privacy of individuals is also protected by police knocking before entering to execute a search warrant. For instance, if the occupant of the home is not fully clothed, a knock on the door gives them an opportunity to get dressed. Most people are willing to comply with a search warrant once an officer knocks and shows it to them.
Excessive Officer Behavior During Searches
In so many cases, I have seen police use far more force than necessary to execute a search warrant. Calling in SWAT teams, helicopters, drones, and using smoke bombs all seem overkill for arresting a suspected drug dealer who likely would have exited his home willingly if asked. While I imagine many officers are fearful during these events, it seems to be that some officers enjoy the thrill of breaking down a door. Often, searches for drugs yield no more than a crack rock, sometimes nothing. Yet police departments throw so much of their resources behind these searches.
Police also seem eager to destroy property when executing a search warrant. I recently worked on a case in which police executed a search warrant by breaking the front door as well as windows on all sides of the residence. Thankfully, no one was home. Police even had the phone number for the home's owner who had expressly told them he would comply with a search warrant if they presented one. Officers also ransacked the home worse than a burglary would have, leaving garbage and broken items all over the home. I can only assume officers found this destruction entertaining because it certainly was not necessary. This homeowner was not a criminal and had done nothing wrong. It is no wonder the public is losing respect for police by the minute when police show such disrespect to the public.
"Knock and Announce" Rule Minimally Followed
Though Florida requires police to knock and announce their "authority and purpose" before entering, this requirement is often minimally followed. For instance, police may knock, yell "police!," and immediately burst through a front door before waiting for anyone to answer the door. A search conducted in this manner may become the subject of litigation in court over whether police waited "long enough" before breaking into the residence. There is often no video evidence of the search. Thankfully this is changing slowly.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office does not outfit its deputies with body-worn cameras, though many other local police departments do. Lack of footage of these searches leads to conflicting versions of how a search took place. The way my clients describe officer behavior during these searches is often disturbing. Cameras would make determining the facts much easier. It would also keep officers more honest by holding them accountable for their behavior.
Surprise Police Entry Leads to Violence
Surprising the occupants of a residence, particularly in the middle of the night while they might be sleeping, is a recipe for violence. Did they have reason to believe that the search would go smoothest conducted in this way? It is hard to imagine how.
Kenneth Walker may have fired at who he thought was a burglar who intended to hurt himself and Ms. Taylor. Yet, police shot wildly after breaking down the door, hitting Ms. Taylor with 10 bullets. This suggests to me that police reacted in a disorganized, surprised way themselves. In response to one bullet fired by Mr. Walker, three officers began firing in an uncontrolled manner that could have killed even occupants of the neighboring apartment.
Many are disappointed by this week's grand jury indictment, which failed to hold any officer criminally liable for Breonna Taylor's death. There may or may not be sufficient to hold police criminally responsible for her killing. Either way, this case has and will continue to educate us. Which is more important to us: keeping police and civilians safe, or preventing the possible destruction of drug evidence?