In a late breaking story on Slate today (April 6) titled, No Swat: The most important Supreme Court case you’ve never heard about, reporter Radley Balko writes that this spring, the Court will decide Hudson v. Michigan. The heart of the case examines the extent to which police can use drugs seized in a “no-knock” raid when entering a residence.
The “no-knock” tactic has been approved in extraordinary cases involving hostages or fugitives, but in a 1995 case, Wilson v. Arkansas, the Court for the first time ruled “that at least in principle, the Fourth Amendment requires police to knock and announce themselves before entering a private home.”
The court also acknowledged the English common law “Castle Doctrine,” which says that people have the right to protect their home against intruders.
In “Wilson,” the court acknowledge that there were extenuating circumstances, including when police officers believed they would be in danger or where they had good reason to think a suspect might destroy evidence. The police can either seek a warrant or just break in…but courts then decide if the raid was legal.
In the real world, the exigent-circumstances exceptions have been so broadly interpreted since Wilson, they’ve overwhelmed the rule. No-knock raids have been justified on the flimsiest of reasons, including that the suspect was a licensed, registered gun owner (NRA, take note!), or that the mere presence of indoor plumbing could be enough to trigger the “destruction of evidence” exception.
So what’s the big deal?
First, Americans are sitting passively while our Constitutional rights are being undermined.
Second, and equally as important, while it’s impossible to determine how many times the police have raided the wrong house, killed innocent people, or twisted the law into a pretzel to avoid following the rules, it’s going on all the time. Think about it – the house they raid could be your own.
As Balko writes, these raids are too often based on tips from unreliable confidential informants. According to a May 1995 National Law Journal series, they found that warrants based onlyon these questionable confidential sources tripled between 1980 and 1993, from 24% to 71%. The report also notes that these sources are very well paid for their information.
Balko writes, “Rubber-stamp judges, dicey informants, and aggressive policing have thus given rise to the countless examples of “wrong door” raids we read about in the news.” He lists a long list of innocent people who’ve been killed in “wrong door” raids, including New York City worker Alberta Spruill, Boston minister Accelyne Williams, and a Mexican immigrant in Denver named Ismael Mena.
The Hudson case won’t solve these problems since it deals only with illegal no-knock raids, but if the Supreme Court rules in his favor, it will at least serve as a deterrent to the police and encourage them to obey the law.