from the law-enforcement-bloodsport dept
The Evansville (IN) Police Department has seen a drug bust go up in a cloud of flashbang smoke. A search warrant for drugs and weapons, based on an informant's tip, was executed perfectly… if you're the sort of person who believes it takes a dozen heavily-armed officers, a Lenco Bearcat, and two flashbangs to grab a suspect no one felt like arresting when he was outside alone taking out his trash. (via FourthAmendment.com)
The state appeals court decision [PDF] hinges on the deployment of a flashbang grenade into a room containing a toddler. Fortunately, in this case, the toddler was only frightened, rather than severely burned. But it was this tossed flashbang that ultimately undoes the PD's case. The evidence is suppressed and the conviction reversed.
Scattered throughout the opinion are some amazing depictions of the PD's SWAT team at work -- and how those officers seem to believe the violence of their entries during warrant service are somehow just the new normal.
Things like the following paragraph. First: some background. In some cases, it's (theoretically) more difficult for law enforcement to obtain no-knock warrants. Facts need to be asserted that show that warning the occupants of a residence in any way would most likely result in the destruction of evidence and/or an armed response. Some judges are more willing than others to hand these out, but either way, the standard warrant boilerplate can't be used.
So, here's the difference between a "knock and announce" warrant and a no-knock warrant, as deployed by the Evansville PD.
The SWAT team rode in a Lenco Bearcat that followed a patrol vehicle to the residence. At least a dozen officers were involved. Upon arrival and prior to entry, three officers and a police vehicle approached the rear of the residence and at least nine officers, most armed with assault weapons, approached the front of the residence. At 10:30 a.m., the police knocked on the residence and one of the officers announced, “Police - Search Warrant - Police - Search Warrant,” and another officer announced over a loudspeaker “Search Warrant. 314 Illinois.” State’s Exhibit 1 at 3:55-4:00. One second later, the SWAT team knocked down the door with a battering ram.
ONE SECOND. Technically, still a knock-and-announce warrant, even though the residents had been given no chance to respond.
Within the next couple of seconds, a flashbang grenade was tossed into the front room, which contained a playpen and a baby's car seat. The toddler was in the playpen.
After the flash bang grenade was deployed, Detective Gray entered the residence and picked up a nine-month old baby crying on top of blankets in a playpen just inside and “very close to the door.” Id. at 332. The room also contained a baby’s car seat and a toddler’s activity center in the line of sight of the front door. One of the officers moved the car seat with his foot to proceed further into the residence.
The officer who tossed the flashbang said he could see more than what was captured by his helmet cam, but still admitted he could not see everything in the room into which he tossed the grenade. This grenade was thrown within two seconds of the officers' announcement that they had a warrant and roughly one second after the door was breached.
Officer Taylor testified that his perception of things involved a much wider view than what the camera could see. At a time stamp of 4:01 on the video, a member of the SWAT team rammed the door open several inches with a battering ram. From an angle to the right, Officer Taylor tossed the flash bang into the house at 4:02, and it detonated at 4:04. The video at 4:02 shows only a portion of the right rear of the couch and the wood floor on which it sat. The video reveals that about five minutes after the initial entry someone stated: “Make sure you get a picture . . . are you taking a picture of that?” State’s Exhibit 1 at 8:50-8:55. This appears to be a reference to a charred stain on the floor. The person then stated: “Because the baby was in this room, but I put it right there for a reason.” Id. at 8:55-9:00.
The lower court found these tactics unreasonable on the whole and granted suppression of the evidence obtained during the search. The state argued that suppression wasn't the proper remedy and anything resulting from the "unreasonable" use of a flashbang grenade in a toddler's room was something to be addressed in a civil lawsuit.
The appeals court disagrees, finding nothing justifiable about the SWAT team's violent entry into the home.
The video shows almost no time lapse between when the door was battered in and the tossing of the flash bang. The door was barely opened when the flash bang was immediately tossed into the room, and the angle at which Officer Taylor was standing to the door did not allow him an opportunity to see what was inside the room. Indeed, Officer Taylor acknowledged that he could not see portions of the room in which the flash bang was placed. Specifically, he testified that he could see “from the couch over to the left, I can’t see the corner, the left corner inside the room and I can’t see the hallway in front of it, that’s why the flash bang goes in the threshold.”
That's the flashbang, delivered two seconds after the police announced their presence. This is only part of it. The attempt to salvage the fruits of the search with a claim that the house potentially contained dangerous criminals also receives no judicial sympathy. The state makes assertions, but cannot back them up.
The State does not point us to any other evidence indicating the criminal history of Watkins or the other occupants of the house. The record contains no evidence that law enforcement could not have safely presented the person matching Watkins’s description with the search warrant during the time that he was outside the house and before he re-entered it.
While the police may have had a valid reason to enter and search the residence, the way it carried it out destroys anything it gained from serving the warrant.
Comparing the factors, we conclude that while there was a considerable degree of suspicion, the extent of law enforcement needs for a military-style assault was low and the degree of intrusion was unreasonably high. Under these specific circumstances and particularly in light of the use of a flash bang grenade in the same room as a nine-month old baby who was “very close” to where the flash bang was deployed, the State has not demonstrated that the police conduct was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.
In most courts, uttering the words "drugs" and "guns" is normally enough to excuse a full-on, military-style assault on someone's residence. Here, though, the court finds the officers were aggressive and careless, which is an extremely dangerous combination. Things could have gone so much worse, especially for the toddler caught in the middle of it, making any police assertions about prior due diligence and "cautious" deployment of flashbang grenades almost laughable. A deployment that occurs one second after a door is breached isn't "cautious." It's obscenely negligent.