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The problem with drug raids

There’s nothing like getting shot to ruin a man’s day. Don’t believe
me? Just ask 64-year-old Mario Paz. Of course, you’ll probably need a
spirit medium to accomplish this feat. Mario’s dead — and not of
natural causes.

Before the clock struck 12 on the night of Aug. 9, 1999, the El
Monte, Calif., Police Department Special Emergency Response Team struck
Mario. Conducting what is often known as a “dynamic” or “high risk”
entry, the police shot the locks off the front and back doors, tossed a
flash-bang grenade and proceeded to deposit two lead slugs in Mario’s
back. High risk indeed.

The police said Mario was reaching for a gun. Who wouldn’t?
According to the lawyer representing what’s left of the Paz family,
Mario thought it was a home invasion robbery. No such luck. The cops
were looking for drugs, which they didn’t find. They did find a few
guns and $10,000, which they seized, even though the family said they
kept the guns for protection in their high-crime neighborhood and had
the bank withdrawal slip for the money — indicating that perhaps they
didn’t earn it brokering coke or peddling funny cigarettes as the cops

As of this writing, the FBI is investigating the raid to decide if
officers followed the proper protocol for shooting a grandfather in the
back. And considering the exemplary job the FBI did investigating its
Branch Davidian bonfire in Waco, Texas, we’ll be lucky if we ever find
out what exactly happened to Mario Paz.

The argument for dynamic raids usually hangs on two justifications:
preserving evidence and protecting officers. To some degree it makes
perfect sense. If the narco mounties knock and identify themselves
before a drug raid, the suspect will have plenty of time to flush the
dope down the john and hide behind the couch with his two friends, Smith
and Wesson. If, on the other hand, you swing through the door like
Batman, you stand a better chance of catching the dealer off-guard and
red-handed — or, at least, powdery-white-handed — before he has a
chance to reach for his peashooter. In 1994 the Wisconsin Supreme Court
sanctioned no-knock raids by making this very point, saying that
“unannounced, dynamic entry” could minimize the possibility for

One official with the Sacramento County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department
made a comparable statement concerning officer safety in January 1993:
“Our problem is that a lot of times you’re dealing with drug dealers,
and their thought process is not always right from the start.” This
concern is perhaps reasonable. What if the dealer samples too much of
his product, being particularly fond of vitamins P, C and P? “That’s
when things get real dangerous for us,” said the official.

His statement was given to justify a no-knock, dynamic entry that
happened only a few days before — one in which Manuel Ramirez of
Stockton, Calif., was killed in his own room. With a warrant based on
evidence from a tip, the police broke into Ramirez’s house at 2:00 a.m.
A shootout ensued, leaving Ramirez plumbed with a few more holes than he
needed and certainly deader than he wanted. Much to the embarrassment
of nearly everyone involved, no drugs were ever found.

Remembering the Wisconsin court’s justification for no-knock raids,
I’m not so sure minimizing violence is such a great idea; it can get you

Of course, some instances of violence might be stopped before they
have a chance to start if police were a bit better at reading names and
street addresses. Quoting esteemed criminologist George F. Cole, “More
recently there have been published accounts of narcotics agents breaking
into private homes and holding the residents at gunpoint while pulling
apart the interiors in vain searches for drugs. That these have been
cases of mistaken identity is no excuse.” I’ll say. Indeed, episodes
are on the rise of police smashing down doors, throwing residents to the
ground, holding them at gunpoint (at the mercy of a policeman’s tense
and frazzled nerves) and then, after ripping apart the couch cushions
and knocking over the bookcases in fruitless searches for contraband,
finding out that they’re at the wrong house.

In one example, after his home was raided, Glen Williamson, of
Louisiana, had to point out to the arresting officer that the search
warrant actually said, “Glen Williams,” not “Williamson.” Ever
conscientious, the cop simply tagged “on” to the end of his name and
arrested the poor guy anyway.

While watching TV in their southeast Washington, D.C., home, George
and Katrina Stokes had visitors. As Daniel K. Benjamin and Roger Leroy
Miller tell the story in their book, Undoing Drugs, the local SWAT team,
armed like something out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie crashed
through the front door unannounced. At gunpoint, George was ordered to
the ground, cutting his head in the process. Meanwhile, his wife fell
down the basement stairs, unsuccessfully evading those who were

While all this ruckus was going on, an accompanying camera crew from
a local TV station had video cameras rolling. Needless to say, they
captured some prime footage — especially the part where the SWAT team
realized they had stormed the wrong house. With cameras still rolling,
the Keystone SWATs ran back to the cars and drove off in search of the
right address.

Unfortunately, Accelynne Williams didn’t have the same good luck the
Stokes had. When the police finally left Williams’ home, the coroner
had to be called. The 75-year-old, retired black preacher died of a
heart attack after 13 heavily armed Boston police in black fatigues
smashed into his apartment. Working from an anonymous tip, the police
never even bothered to get a specific apartment number. Instead, as
journalist James Bovard recounts the case, they “simply took the
informant’s word, did a quick drive-by of the building, got a search
warrant” and busted down the door. The police found no drugs —
something that occasionally happens when one raids the wrong house; as
it happens, the cops were looking for “four heavily armed Jamaican drug
dealers.” Better luck next time.

In address to police tactics such as these, Cole offers a nearly
profound idea: “No citizen should be placed in such circumstances.” I,
for one, second the motion. The U.S. Supreme Court nearly does as well.

On May 22, 1995, the High Court ruled unanimously that police are
required to knock and announce themselves before entering a domicile to
act less than domestically — ordinarily, that is. The court added that
the knock-and-notice principle is “not an inflexible rule” and whether
or not to follow it is up to an officer’s discretion — which certainly
slips a mickey in the ruling. All an officer has to do is maintain that
evidence will be better secured if the search is made unannounced, and
he’s free to brush up his commando impersonation.

A big problem with all of this (besides the dead bodies and PR
problems for the police) is that it assaults a fundamental legal
doctrine. The principle of knocking and providing notice before
breaking a private citizen’s door latch and tossing a concussion grenade
through the bathroom window is a time-honored principle in our legal
system. As Bovard notes in his book, Lost Rights, the principle goes
back as far as 1603 and rests in the traditions of English common law,
linked to the same sentiment which provides the basis for our Fourth
Amendment — namely, the idea that folks’ property and homes are not to
be buggered with by the cops without a doggoned good reason.

As good things often are, the principle has been repeatedly
reaffirmed by American courts. Even the May 22, 1995, ruling by the
Supreme Court gave a thumbs-up to the idea. Justice Clarence Thomas
noted that the Founders understood the issue and that the
knock-and-notice principle was part of the “fabric of early American
law.” Yet, at the same time the court praised the idea, it gave law
enforcement the excuse it needs to get around it. That’s like Moses
permitting an escape clause in the Ten Commandments.

Even more problematic than this, however, no-knock raids give an
implicit middle finger to the Constitution. As many innocent victims
suffer because of unannounced, dynamic entries, none suffer quite so
badly as the Fourth Amendment, which clearly defends “The right of the
people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,
against unreasonable searches and seizures. …” It’s a little hard to
be secure in anything when a dozen unannounced police officers bust in,
acquaint your cheek with the carpet, and screw a gun in your ear — or
so I would think.

Legally, “unreasonable,” is understood as any search that is not
based on probable cause that a crime has in fact been committed, and I
think it’s safe to say that when the Founders said “probable cause,”
they meant more than an anonymous tip that someone might be slinging
smack — which is quite often how it works. They certainly would have
thought that “reasonable” included double checking the street address of
the home to be searched.

In Ker v. California (1963), Supreme Court Justice William Brennan
opined that “Rigid restrictions upon unannounced entries are essential
if the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against invasion of the security
and privacy of the home is to have any meaning.” In our mad rush to
slap the hands of every drug dealer in America, we are ensuring that the
Fourth Amendment and constitutionally guaranteed privacy mean less every

As drug dealers figure out new ways around prohibition, law
enforcement is forced to crack down with renewed vigor and creativity —
usually and increasingly at the expense of our liberties. The Fourth
Amendment has already suffered greatly because of drug courier profiling
and the police playing fast and loose with search and seizure
restrictions. The way things are currently going, we’ll continue this
ridiculous obsession to control what our neighbors’ stick in their
bodies until both they and ourselves are all sober residents of the

The victims of no-knock can vouch for it (at least ones who are still
alive): America is getting dangerously close to an OD on drug laws.