State Courts Say Early-Morning Pot Raids Were Gratuitous and Illegal

Sheriff’s deputies in Collier County, Florida, were so eager to arrest Juan Falcon for growing marijuana in his backyard shed that they arrived at his home before 7 a.m. and broke open the door with a battering ram less than 20 seconds after announcing themselves. Drug cops in Kent County, Michigan, were so eager to arrest Michael Frederick and Todd Van Doorne for possession of marijuana-infused butter that they awakened the two men early in the morning and bullied them into allowing searches of their homes. In both cases, state courts recently ruled, the police officers’ unjustified haste made their subsequent searches illegal.

These cases show how blithely drug warriors resort to terrifying and potentially deadly tactics in response to “crimes” that violate no one’s rights, even when safer alternatives are readily available. But the rulings also suggest that courts are increasingly willing to rein in such recklessness.

In Falcon’s case, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal concluded last month that the deputies had violated a state law governing “knock and announce” searches. The law allows an officer with a search warrant to break into a house “if after due notice of the officer’s authority and purpose he or she is refused admittance.” Since Falcon and his family were asleep at the time of the search, Judge Susan Rothstein-Youakim wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel, the 15 to 20 seconds that the SWAT team waited was not enough time to conclude that they had been “refused admittance.” In fact, Falcon and his teenaged daughter were on their way to the door when the deputies forced it open, tossing two flashbang grenades as they did so.

Rothstein-Youakim noted that police violate the knock-and-announce law when they “knock, announce their authority and purpose, and then enter with such haste that the occupant does not have a reasonable opportunity to respond.” Without such an opportunity, what is nominally a knock-and-announce search is in practice indistinguishable from a no-knock search, which requires a special warrant based on circumstances that make the usual approach dangerous.

Rothstein-Youakim noted that police had no reason to believe that Falcon, whose criminal record was limited to a DUI arrest, was armed or would offer resistance. “The deputies also had no reason to believe that Falcon knew that they were coming, that anyone inside the residence was at risk of harm, or that Falcon or his family might try to escape or destroy evidence,” she wrote. But they did know that Falcon had two teenaged children and that the family was apt to be asleep at that hour, magnifying the risk that Falcon would mistake the deputies for burglars or do something they would interpret as threatening.

Such early-morning raids, which are designed to maximize fear and confusion, can easily end in serious injury or death. Whether or not you support prohibition, the 26 marijuana plants that police found in Falcon’s shed surely were not worth risking anyone’s life. “Precisely because there is so little margin for error either way,” Rothstein-Youakim said, “we urge law enforcement agencies to use SWAT tactics to execute search warrants sparingly and to take special care that their use does not simply become par for the course.” It may be a bit late for that warning, since SWAT teams are routinely used to serve drug warrants, but it is nice to see that some judges have qualms about such paramilitary raids.

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Filming Cops
Filming Cops 5618 posts

Filming Cops was started in 2010 as a conglomerative blogging service documenting police abuse. The aim isn’t to demonize the natural concept of security provision as such, but to highlight specific cases of State-monopolized police brutality that are otherwise ignored by traditional media outlets.

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