Justice and Due Process

Should Home Invasions for Drugs Continue?

The name Breonna Taylor has become synonymous with reforming how police operate in the context of home invasions, or “forcible entry” warrants.

A quick refresher:

Police in Louisville, Kentucky, obtained a no-knock warrant to search the apartment of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, entering with a battering ram in the dark of night. This was done as part of an investigation into drug dealing operations of Taylor’s ex-boyfriend 10 miles away. Taylor’s live-in boyfriend shot at the intruders (arguably defending himself and his girlfriend, not knowing it was police), and police shot back, killing Taylor in the process.

There’s a lot to dissect in this case, but for the purposes of this article it’s only necessary to focus on this single statement:

Breonna Taylor was killed because police invaded her apartment to enforce drug laws.

As this case has unfolded I can’t help but draw parallels to Matthew Stewart’s situation years ago here in Utah. Plainclothes officers barged into Matthew’s home in the dark of night, leading Matthew to shoot (arguably defending himself, not knowing it was police), and police shot back. One officer died of his wounds; Matthew later died in jail, after being branded a cop killer.

This instance led to reform (see here and here), including requiring officers invading people’s homes to be in uniform, wear a body camera, and not use a no-knock warrant solely for drug possession cases.

Those reforms didn’t go far enough.

As recent data shows, in 2019 there were 203 forcible entries throughout Utah. Now, one might expect that barging into someone’s home would theoretically be reserved for hostage situations, sex trafficking, or other threats to life such as attempted homicide or suicide.

Instead, the overwhelming majority of these cases — 77% — involved drug enforcement.

Only 6% had to do with violent crimes against persons. The remainder dealt with non-violent person crimes or property crimes.

The risk to both the occupants of a home and the officers themselves is significant. Around the country, as in Utah, innocent people have died from this heavy-handed police tactic.

Taking this hazardous approach might be justified and necessary in cases where there is already an elevated risk. If a person is threatening to kill someone inside a home, it’s probably worth banging down the door to try and save lives. The situation justifies the risk.

Not so with drugs. Officers typically want to preserve evidence in these cases, hoping that the contraband isn’t flushed or otherwise disposed of. But preserving evidence to prosecute someone is simply not worth potentially harming or killing that person or any officer involved. It’s just not.

There are other methods available to police for these less risky scenarios, including a “surround and call out” or detaining the suspect when they are driving somewhere. Other options exist and should be implemented.

And the option of introducing violence and harm where none exists — as in the case of drug crimes — should be taken away. Put more succinctly, the law should be changed such that no-knock warrants are only allowed in cases where there is an existing and imminent threat to human life.

As it turns out, 73% of Utah voters agree.

Further, knock-and-announce warrants need to be more stringently regulated such that they don’t become no-knock warrants in all but name. In other words, the law should be very clear about what must be done (announcing that the people trying to enter are police), and how long they must wait to give the occupants time to respond, before forcefully entering someone’s home.

The government exists to protect life, liberty, and property — even that of presumably innocent people suspected of a crime. Current law is too permissive in allowing violence to be used by government actors when it is not called for.

Given the high risk associated with no-knock warrants, they should be taken off the table for all cases except those where the existing risk to human life justifies adding to that risk.