This was initially published in the Deseret News.
When Kentucky’s attorney general announced last week that none of the officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor would be charged with homicide, sadness and frustration overwhelmed the public. A grand jury had found enough evidence to prosecute only one of the officers, Brett Hankison, with only “wanton endangerment.” This news led to riots, and people quickly pointing fingers of blame at the officers who executed the warrant, calling for their indictment.
But it’s not just the officers at the scene who are at fault. There are many other players involved in irresponsibly writing, signing off on, and planning the enactment of the warrant. Prosecutions won’t help solve that problem, but policy change will.
When police sought out a no-knock warrant to search Taylor’s apartment, they sought out the most dangerous type of warrant the police can get — allowing police to burst into a person’s private residence without giving occupants any kind of warning. These types of warrants should be written and planned with extreme care, and individualized to the circumstances at play. But journalist Radley Balko found that in Taylor’s case, “the portion of the warrant authorizing a no-knock entry cited only cut-and-pasted information from the four other warrants that were part of the same investigation.”
This copy-and-paste method is brazenly irresponsible. And, in Taylor’s case, it’s also unconstitutional. Police failed to articulate any risk of Taylor shooting at police or destroying evidence, which, as Balko writes, are the only constitutionally justifiable reasons for granting a no-knock warrant over that of knock-and-announce. Those involved in writing the warrant need to be held accountable for this misstep. And to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future, state legislatures should make it explicitly clear in state code that warrants must be particularized to the individual circumstances, and copying another warrant from the same case isn’t permitted. Every house, person and circumstance is vastly different, even if they’re all part of the same investigation.
Lack of proper judicial review for the warrant is also a major point of contention in this case. Judge Mary Shaw of Jefferson Circuit signed all five search warrants within 12 minutes of each other, which is quite a fast time to thoroughly read through all the details of each one. Another Jefferson Circuit judge defended Shaw’s actions in an op-ed, stating that she took the time to properly read them before signing, but it’s difficult to know for sure.
This is a nationwide problem as the rise of electronic warrants make it easy to rubber stamp legal documents, with only a signature for proof of comprehension. For example, a statewide investigation in Utah found that the majority of warrants are approved and sent back to police in under 10 minutes, with some granted and signed in under just one minute.
Electronic legal documents are convenient, but at what cost? State court systems aren’t ensuring judges are truly reading each affidavit and warrant, and they must. To that end, they might implement a system allowing judges to highlight sections that show why they’re approving. Or perhaps they be required to type a sentence or two explaining the reason for their decision. It doesn’t have to be too burdensome, but at least something beyond a mere signature because people’s privacy rights are at stake — as is their personal safety.
No-knock warrants should be banned unless there is imminent risk of physical harm to another individual. Preserving evidence in a drug case is simply not a good enough reason to put a person’s life at risk with this dangerous tool. Officers in Taylor’s case knocked, but didn’t give sufficient time for her to collect herself and open the door. States must regulate these searches to ensure they’re served during daylight hours when individuals are most alert and aware, and officers must give occupants enough time to answer the door before bursting through, guns blazing.
No one involved in Taylor’s search warrant expected the case to end in such a fatal way. But that’s the problem. Not enough care was taken to ensure that all fatalities would be avoided, which is exactly why we need stringent policy change on how warrants are proposed and carried out. Until then, innocent people like Breonna Taylor remain at risk.