Caution Needed in Warrant Enforcement

The story of Matthew David Stewart is now well known to most Utahns. Based on the tip of an informant (Matthew’s angry ex-girlfriend), police dressed in street clothes entered Matthew’s home in the dark of night to serve a search warrant for several marijuana plants officers believed he had been growing. Matthew and the officers engaged in a firefight, leading to the injury of several officers and death of Officer Francom. Matthew later allegedly hung himself in jail. None of this was necessary.

This unfortunate incident catalyzes the need for warrant reform. The lives of police officers should not be risked unnecessarily. Officers should be used to neutralize a dangerous situation, rather than creating one as was the case in the execution of this warrant. Reform is needed to provide legislative direction regarding when it is and is not appropriate to forcibly enter a person’s home. Cannabis plants do not justify the escalation of risk to life and property.

In many cases, it’s quite possible to execute a search warrant or apprehend a suspect without banging down their front door. In June we interviewed Erna Stewart, Matthew’s sister-in-law and their family’s spokesperson. In follow-up questions, Erna was emphatic that the warrant to seize Matthew’s cannabis plants could have been done in a way that would not have risked anybody’s life.

“Matthew followed the same schedule most days,” she writes. Erna says that Matthew followed a highly predictable pattern, waiting for her to pick him up for work each evening at 9:50pm. Breaks at work, going to the gym, and weekend excursions also followed a consistent routine, Erna stated.

Of course, officers used a search warrant to go after the plants, and not Matthew specifically. “The officers would have been able to grab Matthew at any of those times and places and hold him while they searched,” Erna states, or they could have “waited until we left with him and then searched the house.”

It is not unreasonable to suggest that had a little more time been spent to track Matthew’s movements, officers would have found a way to cautiously execute their warrant while protecting their own lives—and Matthew’s. After all, peace officers exist to protect every citizen, including alleged suspects (who in many cases are actually innocent). Due diligence is therefore mandatory, and appears to have been absent in serving the warrant against Matthew and his plants.

We have repeatedly affirmed in media interviews regarding our reform proposal that it is as much about protecting police officers as it is the alleged perpetrators. By adding guidelines to the forcible entry law, officers will still be allowed to enter a suspect’s home in dangerous circumstances to protect a threat to one’s life. This is as it should be—we employ police officers to protect those within our community. This reform would additionally require that in non-threatening situations, such as growing a prohibited plant, officers find a more cautious method of seizing evidence or arresting a suspect.

Police work should have the protection of life as the most foundational of objectives. Breaking into a person’s home, where innocent people may be placed in harms way, must be an absolute last resort and only used when necessary to protect life.