‘No Knock’ Warrants Spur Wave of Civil Rights Lawsuits

Police are accused of lying to obtain the warrants to conduct military-style raids on the homes of poor people and people of color.

By Joshua Vaughn

On Sept. 5, 2017, Derrick Davis was preparing a meal with his fiancé in his home on Old Forge Road in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he heard a sound outside his door.

But before Davis could reach the door, it was blown open.

Members of the Little Rock Police Department’s SWAT team had placed explosives on his door and detonated them, causing it to fly off its hinges and strike Davis.

As Davis and his fiancé reeled from the explosion, rifle-bearing police flooded into their home and threatened to kill them.

Police believed that Davis sold cocaine from his home, and officers yelled at him to show them where he was storing the drugs.

But after officers handcuffed Davis and his fiancé and searched his home, they did not find any cocaine. They recovered less than four ounces of marijuana and Davis was charged with multiple felonies, including possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and maintaining a drug premises. Those charges were later dismissed.

The raid on Davis’s home was the result of a “no knock” warrant, which allows police to enter a residence without first announcing themselves. No-knock warrants are typically requested by police when there is evidence that serving a traditional warrant and providing an announcement before entering would endanger the lives of the officers.

In the Davis case, SWAT team members told a Little Rock judge that Davis sold drugs to a confidential informant and they needed a no-knock warrant to search his home.

“The bottom line is you have this fraternity within a fraternity, and they like to kick some ass,” Davis’ attorney Michael Laux said in August. “They tear up a place and just leave. It truly is an indefensible use of SWAT.”

Less than six months after the raid on Davis’s home, police served another no-knock warrant in Little Rock. On Feb. 2, 2018, officers told a judge that a confidential informant had purchased $60 worth of methamphetamine from a man inside a home on Labette Drive and they needed a no-knock warrant.

Two weeks later, officers broke open the front door of the Labette Drive home of Candice Caldwell and threw a flash-bang grenade inside, which burned a portion of the carpet. Another officer used a ladder he found on the property to climb onto the roof and break into the home through a second floor window. Officers also fired shots through the ceiling and caused more than $7,800 in damage.

But as was the case with the Davis raid, officers came up empty. All that was recovered was a home surveillance system that apparently recorded the incident and a glass smoking device.

Officers seized the smoking device and charged Caldwell with possession of an instrument of crime. However, those charges were later dismissed. And despite multiple requests from Caldwell and her family, Little Rock police did not return the surveillance system or the video of the incident.

Caldwell and Davis are both represented by Laux and Benjamin Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin. On Aug. 8, Laux and Crump filed four civil rights lawsuits against the Little Rock Police Department on behalf of people whose homes they say were illegally raided.

The lawsuits allege that the police conspired and carried out illegal raids in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures), falsely arrested and initiated malicious prosecutions against Caldwell, Davis, and other Little Rock residents, and intentionally caused emotional distress in the people whose homes they raided.

All of the lawsuits contend that officers lied to judges to obtain the no-knock search warrants. In most of the cases, the lawsuits allege officers told the issuing judge that they had used a confidential informant to do a controlled buy of drugs at the home they wanted to search. According to the lawsuits, that information from the confidential informant was made up or the confidential informant was made up by the police to get permission to search the home.

Representatives from the Little Rock Police Department didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Appeal and have not filed a response to any of the four lawsuits.

In 2018, a Little Rock city attorney said their policies on no-knock warrants comply with federal and state law.  But in June, Chief Keith Humphrey announced an overhaul of the department’s procedures for obtaining no-knock warrants to require more vetting of confidential informants as well as an assessment of the threat police expect while serving the warrant.

No-knock warrants—especially those in which informants serve as key sources of information—have become a deeply troubled part of the criminal legal system. In August, District Attorney Kim Ogg of Harris County, Texas, filed murder charges against Gerald Goines, a former Houston narcotics officer, after two people were killed during a raid of a home in January that also left five police officers injured. Goines is accused of falsifying information on an affidavit used to obtain a no-knock warrant to search the home. According to Ogg, Goines lied about using a confidential informant to purchase drugs from the couple and then lied about purchasing drugs from them himself to obtain the warrant. Steven Bryant, another former officer involved in the raid, was charged with tampering with a government document for allegedly lying in a supplemental report.

Since 2014, Little Rock Police Department policy has mandated that its SWAT team must be used when serving any search warrants because of potential dangers to officers.

But no-knock warrants, aside from the potential for civil rights violations, have also resulted in serious injuries for civilians.

In September 2016, officers obtained a no-knock warrant for a home at 3220 King Road, but chose to search both that address and a nearby home at 3114 King Road.

Around 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2016, SWAT officers burst into both homes. While inside 3114 King Road—the residence they were not legally permitted to enter—they shot Lloyd St. Clair multiple times in the back, causing permanent injuries.

Police said St. Clair pointed a handgun at them, and he was charged with felony assault, but local prosecutors later dismissed those charges.

An internal affairs investigation cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

St. Clair later sued, and his federal civil rights lawsuit against the police department is one of the four that Laux and Crump filed in August.

In August 2017, police raided the home of Roderick Talley after obtaining a no-knock warrant. Video from that incident shows officers blowing open Talley’s door with explosives and searching through his belongings, finding only a small amount of marijuana. “You don’t know what fear is until you wake up and your own front door is flying at you,”  Talley told Radley Balko of the Washington Post.

In December 2017, Talley filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department, claiming police falsified information to obtain the no-knock search warrant, violated his constitutional rights by conducting the raid, and conducted a malicious prosecution against him. The case was dismissed in April at Talley’s request.

“These raids, at their essence, are really a tool designed to keep Black folks and poor folks in their place,” Laux said during a press conference in August. “To keep them scared, to keep them on their heels. It’s unconscionable.”

Originally published in the Appeal

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