With the federal judiciary increasingly the domain of conservative jurists, state courts may not be the first but the last resort for people seeking redress of grievances against the state. And they are stepping up: In two recent rulings, state courts in Florida and Michigan have thrown out marijuana cases because of dangerous, overly aggressive SWAT-style raids.
In the Florida case, a heavily armed SWAT team of Collier County Sheriff’s deputies hoping to seize two dozen pot plants growing in the back yard of Juan Falcon’s home arrived at his front door at 7am, yelled that they were police, and broke down his door with a battering ram, throwing two flashbang grenades into the home for good measure.
As the state’s Second District Court of Appeal noted in its ruling that the search was illegal, police knew they were hitting a family residence with two children in the home, that Falcon had no criminal record, and that he posed no threat of violence.
Florida law allows “knock and announce” searches, where police can forcibly enter a residence when homeowners fail to respond in a timely fashion to their demands to open up. But in a unanimous decision authored by Judge Susan Rothstein-Youakim, the appeals court held that police in this case went too far:
At just past 6:45 a.m. on April 9, 2014, a SWAT unit of at least six heavily armed deputies appeared on the front doorstep of Falcon’s residence to execute a search warrant. Less than an hour earlier, the deputies had all been briefed on the fact that Falcon lived in the residence with his family, which included an adolescent son and a teenage daughter. Notwithstanding the nature of the suspected offense, the deputies had no reason to believe that there were any weapons in the residence or that Falcon was armed and dangerous; his criminal history consisted of one arrest for driving under the influence. 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.
Not only were the cops overly aggressive given the totality of the circumstances, Rothstein-Youakim concluded, they violated the “knock and announce” law by announcing their presence, but then breaking down the door “with such haste that the occupant does not have a reasonable opportunity to respond.”
The court reversed Falcon’s conviction for maintaining a marijuana grow house.
In the Michigan case, the state Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion, throwing out the convictions of two Kent County jail guards for possessing marijuana-infused butter after Kent County narcotics agents conducted predawn raids without warrants on their homes. One raid came at 4am and the other at 5:30am.
The Kent County narcs insisted the warrantless raids were proper because they were only doing “knock and talk” interactions with the suspects. Under the state’s “knock and talk” law, police can go to someone’s home without a warrant and engage them in hopes of turning up suspicious behavior. In these cases, heavily armed police appeared in the middle of the night, demanded entrance to the homes, and the intimidated homeowners and their families consented to the search.
The jail guards later challenged the legality of those searches, and in a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court agreed the searches were unlawful:
In these cases, the police officers exceeded the scope of the implied license to knock and talk because the officers approached defendants’ respective homes without warrants during the predawn hours; therefore, the officers trespassed on Fourth-Amendment-protected property. And because the officers trespassed while seeking information about defendants’ alleged possession of marijuana butter, they performed searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
In the wake of that ruling, the trial judge in the case ruled last month that the marijuana-infused butter seized in the raids could not be used as evidence because police had violated the Fourth Amendment’s proscription against unwarranted searches and seizures.
Police conduct thousands of these SWAT-style drug raids each year. In rare cases, the resort to paramilitarized SWAT teams to go after drug suspects in middle of the night raids resembling combat operations may be justified, but in all too many cases, they amount to dangerous overkill. It’s a shame that elected officials fail to rein them in, but at least some state courts still uphold the Constitution.