No-Knock Entries by Police Take Their Toll on Innocent
WHILE Congress debates exactly how much to increase the power of law enforcement officials in the crime bill it is considering, little attention is being paid to the abuses already occurring at the hands of zealous, unrestrained government agents.
People's lives are increasingly being ruined as a result of unsubstantiated ``tips'' by anonymous government informants.
On March 25, 13 heavily armed Boston police smashed into the apartment of Rev. Accelynne Williams, a retired Methodist minister. Reverend Williams apparently ran into his bedroom when the raid began; police smashed down the bedroom door, struggled with him, and handcuffed him. Minutes later, Williams was dead of a heart attack. No drugs were found in his apartment. Boston police carried out the raid on a tip from an anonymous informant who did not even give a specific apartment number.
At 2 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1993, police broke down the door and rushed into the home of Manuel Ramirez of Stockton, Calif. Mr. Ramirez awoke, grabbed a pistol, and shot and killed one policeman by his bedroom door before the other police killed him.
The police were raiding the house based on a tip that drugs were on the premises, but they found no drugs.
Lt. Dan Lewis, of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department later sought to justify the raid's methods: ``Our problem is that a lot of times you're dealing with drug dealers, and their thought process is not always right from the start. That's when things get real dangerous for us.''
On Aug. 25, 1992, Customs Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the San Diego home of businessman Donald Carlson, setting off a bomb in his backyard, smashing through his front door, and shooting him three times after he tried to defend himself with a gun. Police even shot Mr. Carlson in the back after he had given up his gun and was lying wounded on his bedroom floor. The Customs Service believed that there were four machine guns and a large cache of illegal narcotics in Carlson's home - but federal attorneys finally admitted in early 1993 that Carlson was completely innocent.
The raid was launched based on a tip from a paid informant named Ron, who later told the Los Angeles Times that he had never formally identified any specific house to be searched.
In March 1992, a police SWAT team killed Robin Pratt, an Everett, Wash., mother in a no-knock raid to serve an arrest warrant on her husband. (Her husband was later released after the allegations upon which the arrest warrant was based turned out to be false.)
The Seattle Times reported that the raid began as SWAT team members threw a 50 pound battering ram through a sliding glass door; Pratt was shot in the neck at close range by an officer as she was crouched on her knees, begging the police not to harm her children.
Police planning no-knock raids often can be as incompetent and inaccurate as the Postal Service can be in delivering letters. DEA agents used an ax to break down the door of an innocent Guthrie, Okla., man in 1991 and then handcuffed and kicked him in front of his wife and daughters before they realized they were at the wrong address; the agents left without apologizing.
Unfortunately, no-knock raids are becoming more common as federal, state, and local politicians and law enforcement officials decide that the war on drugs justifies nullifying the Fourth Amendment.
As Charles Patrick Garcia noted in a 1993 Columbia Law Review article, ``Seven states, favoring strong law enforcement, have chosen a `blanket approach,' which holds that once police have probable cause to search a home for drugs, they are not required to follow the constitutional `knock and announce' requirement.''
Even liberal states are jumping on the no-knock bandwagon. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 8 that police could forcibly enter people's homes without knocking in any case in which there was ``evidence of drug dealing.'' Unfortunately, ``evidence of drug dealing'' can be the uncorroborated assertion of a single anonymous paid government informant.
The Wisconsin court said that the ``possibility of violence'' can be minimized by allowing police to rely on ``unannounced, dynamic entry'' - though it is probably safe to assume that the judges don't expect the police to be carrying out such raids in their own neighborhoods.
The proliferation of no-knock raids constitutes a vast narrowing of the traditional concept of American liberty.
Such raids in response to alleged narcotics violations presume that the government should have practically unlimited power to endanger people's lives in order to control what other people ingest.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association have jointly called on President Clinton to appoint a national commission to investigate ``lawlessness in law enforcement.''
The ACLU-NRA proposal has gone nowhere, but the time is ripe to, at a minimum, attach a requirement for such a commission to the congressional crime bill. Better yet, Congress should establish explicit rules to limit the arbitrary and violent behavior of federal agents carrying out searches and raids, and state legislatures should repeal laws granting unlimited no-knock search powers to police in their jurisdictions. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.