When can police officers legally invade a person’s home? Known as a “forcible entry,” this process typically requires a warrant but until several years ago, state law did not specify restrictions on what circumstances could justify such a tactic.
In the past, following situations like the Matthew David Stewart case in Ogden, Libertas worked with the Utah Legislature to reform how these warrants could be served.
For example, the law was changed to now state that officers must take “reasonable precautions in execution of any search warrant to minimize the risks of unnecessarily confrontational or invasive methods which may result in harm to any person.” They can only use “force which is reasonable and necessary.” And they must wear uniforms, a body camera, and identify themselves as officers as they enter the home. Finally, forcible entry warrants are now disallowed for cases involving only drug possession.
Elected officials later went further, requiring police officers to routinely disclose how and when they are conducting these forcible entry warrants. Utah became, and remains, the only such state to impose this level of transparency on law enforcement.
But more reforms are still needed. Former Representative Craig Hall worked with Libertas to sponsor a comprehensive bill in 2021 to limit no-knock warrants to be used only when there was “existing, imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to a person inside the building.” The bill would have prohibited using such controversial and high-risk tactics merely to secure evidence for a criminal prosecution. (In Utah, over 75 percent of these home invasions are due to drug crimes.) Unfortunately, the bill did not pass.
This year, Representative Matt Gwynn sponsored House Bill 124 — a bill that contained many of the other reforms in Rep. Hall’s bill, but without the ban on using these tactics for evidentiary purposes. HB 124, which passed the Legislature unanimously, ensured that officers who are conducting the no-knock warrant must be wearing “readily identifiable markings, including a badge and vest or clothing with a distinguishing label” to help individuals identify them as law enforcement.
The bill then clarifies that officers can conduct a no-knock warrant when “exigent circumstances exist due to the destruction of evidence” or reasonable suspicion to believe there is a threat to the safety of an officer or individual in near proximity to the building.
Before asking a judge for warrant approval, the bill requires a supervisory official to evaluate the totality of the circumstances, ensure reasonable intelligence-gathering efforts and threat assessments were made, and determine there is sufficient basis to seek a warrant. This adds another layer of protection to ensure the legitimacy of the warrants.
The bill also requires all warrants to be served during daytime hours unless there are sufficient grounds to believe it is necessary to conduct during the evening hours. This is generally safer for everyone involved, including officers and home residents.
For no-knock warrants, the bill requires the affidavit to describe why the officer believes the suspect is unable to be detained or the residence can’t be searched using less invasive methods. It also requires investigation to ensure the correct building is identified and potential harm to innocent third parties is minimized.
Though its most important provision was not included compared to last year, HB 124 is still a step toward a better warrant process to reduce problems with home invasions and ensure they are used more appropriately.