Estimated read time: 10-11 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
SALT LAKE CITY -- I was asked to write about a first- person acount of a no-knock search warrant. Many officers participate in this column, and I have asked a colleague of mine to assist me in this article. He has participated in many no-knock search warrants, and I felt he was the best person to convey this information.
I have assisted in many search warrants, but they have been either knock and announce or we have been sitting on the residence, waiting for the warrant to be completed. I did not want to make up a story and would feel it would be a disservice to the readers of this article and the brave men who take on the task of serving high-hazard warrants if I did.
Police use of search warrants is one area of police work that is probably more misunderstood and misrepresented than any other area. Common perceptions that are passed around are that police get a free pass with searches and police are constantly taking property from individuals “just because they can.” The reality is this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you listen to those who complain about police use of search warrants, you would believe they are easy to obtain and have very little judicial review. Let me tell you this, search warrants are easy to get if you have done your job well and you have written a quality search warrant that is factual. The average search warrant is usually five to 10 typed pages in a combination of a boilerplate format for the basic legalities and the facts typed in paragraph form. While five to 10 pages is common on simple warrants, I have seen many warrants reach 20 to 30 pages.
Once the warrant is written, the police officer then has to submit the warrant to the local district attorney’s office for the initial review. This consists of the reviewing attorney reading the entire warrant and questioning the police officer about all the facts in which the warrant is based. The warrant must spell out what the qualifications of the affiant (police officer authoring the warrant) are, what the facts of the alleged crime and the case is all about, all the information that would justify the use of a search warrant, and specifically what the police expect to find during the search warrant.
Once the reviewing attorney is satisfied the warrant is solid, the police officer must then go to a judge who goes through the same process of reviewing the facts and justification for issuing a search warrant. Again, the officer is questioned about the facts of the case and the need. If the judge finds “probable cause,” meaning a preponderance of evidence in the warrant to justify a warranted search, the judge will sign the warrant and it can then be executed by the police.
Knock vs. No-knock
The judge also decides if the warrant is a “knock and announce” or a “no-knock warrant.” The difference is that with a knock and announce, the police must first knock, announce it is the police with a search warrant and wait a reasonable amount of time for the person being served to open the door. This is also usually the time the criminal uses to dispose of evidence or try to bail out the back and escape.
On a no-knock warrant, the police do not have to give the warning, they are allowed to use whatever reasonable means to make entry without forewarning the criminal they are there. No-knock warrants are much harder to get, even though they are much safer for the police officers. Officers must articulate a high degree of danger or an extreme ease of disposing of evidence if they were to announce their presence.
Weapons being present and a demonstrated history by the criminal of a violent past are the most common examples of when a judge will grant a no-knock warrant. Of course as was demonstrated recently in the shooting of six Ogden police officers during the execution of a knock and announce warrant, there are no safe warrants to serve.
First Hand Account
Here is the story of the officer who has participated in numerous no-knock search warrants:
Friends and acquaintances have often said to me, “They don’t pay you enough for what you do for us.” I can tell you this, that statement is never more true than during the execution of a no-knock search warrant when you know the criminal is extremely violent and armed.
I remember one warrant service in which we knew from the undercover officer that the individual was very paranoid from extensive drug use, was heavily armed and had been previously convicted of the attempted murder of another drug dealer who had crossed him (no, those convicted of very violent crimes do not remain in jail). We approached the house in the early evening, hoping to get inside before the usual influx of addicts began arriving for their nightly dosage of illicit drugs.
There is nothing quite like the drive from the assembly area to the location. You have already been briefed on all the dangers and what the plan is. On this particular warrant, it was known the suspect had what appeared, and what he claimed, were numerous fully functioning automatic weapons, placed strategically around his residence for easy access if the police or rival drug dealers should arrive.
Vehicles used to transport SWAT officers to such raids are rarely like what is shown on TV. Most jurisdictions just don’t have the money for the fancy ones, so they improvise. We used an old utility van and had 16 fully dressed SWAT officers crammed in the back. You couldn’t sit down, you had to do a squat because of the crowded conditions.
"You hopefully have the right people in the right places so that you all get to go home to your kids when it's over."
Why 16? Because when you encounter very violent individuals, it is best to overwhelm them with numbers. They are more likely to submit in the face of certain defeat, and if they don’t, you hopefully have the right people in the right places so that you all get to go home to your kids when it’s over.
Anytime you get a group of cops together who know each other, there is an over abundance of comedic relief, either verbal or practical jokes. However, I can tell you that once a search warrant entry team begins practicing for the entry and preparing to move to the target, an eerie quiet settles among the team. It is serious business knowing that you or a friend may not walk away after the entry. The drive to the target is like nothing else you have ever done. The closer you get, the more you want to vomit.
Athletes talk about nerves before big games. Driving to what might be someone’s death makes athletics trivial. As we approached this particular location, I remember thinking of my wife and kids and how they would handle the situation if my chief and boss had to go to my house and tell them I had been killed. I was asking myself why I was doing this again. Any cop who has ever been in a situation like this and speaks honestly will tell you fear grabs you as you reach the point of leaving the van for the entry.
"Any cop who has ever been in a situation like this and speaks honestly will tell you fear grabs you as you reach the point of leaving the van for the entry."
It isn’t the “run away” fear, it is the realization fear of what might happen next, but your training, and the knowledge you have others in the same situation that you trust “with your life,” takes over, and you do your job.
As we entered this residence after blasting the door with a ram by hand, the silence of the approach was shattered by the repeated yelling of “search warrant, police,” by every single officer as they entered and moved through the residence. My job was to lead the portion of the team down to the basement. This basement was pitch black. If our suspect was down there with one of his automatic weapons, I was the guy he would see first, back-lighted by the lights from upstairs.
In all the chaos as I moved through the main hallway of the basement, the thought that I was this guy's first target roared in my head. That little voice of reasoning kept telling me to stop and go back, but I knew that would not happen.
I proceeded to the first bedroom on the left. The door was open and there was a partially above-ground window against the far wall, and between me and that window was the head of a man. It was dark and I couldn’t see his hands, and as I turned and pointed my gun at him, I yelled, “Let me see your hands” and I could not detect a response. He was looking at me, but he was not doing what I was telling him to do.
My mind immediately clicked to the thought this guy was taking aim and pulling the trigger. I screamed again for him to show me his hands. Nothing! This person was not reacting as someone being confronted by a yelling, well- armed police officer should, and my mind went into “reaction to training” mode, and I prepared to shoot before being shot, and continued to scream about him showing his hands.
As automatic muscle movements began to engage, something, I still can’t tell you what, told me not to shoot, and as my gun moved to actually cover this man and the light mounted on the gun reached him, I realized it was a 5-year-old boy standing on the bed looking at me in absolute stunned terror.
"As my gun moved to actually cover this man and the light mounted on the gun reached him, I realized it was a 5-year-old boy standing on the bed looking at me in absolute stunned terror."
As hard as it might be to believe, the lapsed time from first seeing this individual, yelling, judging and decision making and moving my gun to target took about one second, although in the phenomenon that happens to the human mind in such stressful situations, it took forever.
I moved to the boy, and my partner cleared the room as the other team members moved to clear the rest of the basement. The small boy began to cry as children who are terrorized do, and I, the object of his fear, did everything I could to comfort him. As I was doing so, we sat down on the bed, and I grabbed a filthy teddy bear laying there and handed it to the boy as I tried to console him.
At first, I didn’t pay attention to the shiny silver ribbon around the neck of the bear, but then it hit me, what if he had been holding that bear when he stood up and the silver ribbon had been reflecting light at the height one would expect someone pointing a gun to be holding it, neck level where kids hold teddy bears.
The scout of this target and the undercover officer had never identified children as being present. We learned they had always been there, but the piece-of-garbage drug dealer made them stay in the basement, all day every day, because they were an inconvenience upstairs. There were feces on the floor, and a baby, also downstairs, was playing with dog crap and eating dog food. She also had a horrible diaper rash, bright red, covering the entire area her diaper reached.
The suspect didn’t reach one of his numerous weapons before officers were able to get to him, and his only comments to us in response to the children was to detail what sex acts we could perform on ourselves. Anger doesn’t begin to describe our emotions, but we remained professional with great effort and control.
This wasn’t typical of every search warrant, but it was very similar to many, both knock and announce and no knock. Thankfully, I never was part of a warrant service that went so terribly wrong like the one in Ogden, but judges force police officers to use far too many knock and announce search warrants and have us do the best we can.
I appreciate my colleague taking the time to relay a story that has stuck with him throughout his long and storied career. Please feel free to ask us any questions about search warrants, what we go through and how we handle them.