Avoid No-Knocking on the Wrong Door
Written by BJ Bourg
“Police Hit Wrong House” is a headline that should send
chills down the backs of all law enforcement officers. The Fourth Amendment to
the United States Constitution guarantees protection against unreasonable
searches and seizures, and every law enforcement officer swears an oath to
support the Constitution. Since they are charged with executing lawful searches
and seizures, it is their solemn duty to protect innocent people against any
mistakes that they—as law enforcement officers—might make.
One of the most egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment
occurs when officers mistakenly execute a “no-knock” search warrant on the
wrong house. While there may be legal recourse for victims of these incidents,
no amount of compensation can remedy the damage resulting from the loss of
innocent life. In order to circumvent this type of irreversible harm, every officer
must do his/her part to exercise due care to ensure these incidents never transpire
in the first place.
Since the majority of erroneous “no-knock” searches occur in
connection with narcotics investigations, officers should seek to eliminate all
likelihood of error by taking a number of practical steps during these types of
Most illegal narcotics investigations are generally initiated
when officers receive information from an informant. Their first order of
business is to conduct a thorough investigation into the informant’s
background. They should seek to determine if the informant has a reason to lie,
if there is animosity between the informant and the target, if the informant has
ever been arrested, and so on. Once officers determine the informant is
reliable, they should seek to authenticate the information provided.
Officers must verify as much of the information as possible before
acting upon it. Even if informants have proven reliable in the past, officers
should not apply for a warrant based solely upon their word. Many informants
are current or past drug users “working off” minor drug charges. Thus, officers
should only accept information they provide as a basis for further
investigation and not as a basis for definitive action.
There are many ways for officers to verify much of the
information provided by informants and each case will present its own set of
circumstances and corresponding methods of authentication. Criminal history
checks will reveal if the suspect has a history of drug violations, driver’s
license inquiries may help verify the suspect’s address, and registration
checks can help link suspects and their vehicles to the target location.
However, officers should not rely solely upon this information.
In order to gather real-time intelligence and learn as much
as possible about the suspects, their activities, and other occupants inside
the target location, officers must conduct extensive surveillance operations.
Additionally, officers should seek to have a trained
undercover officer accompany the informant into the target location to meet
with the suspect. If this is not possible, officers should, at a minimum,
“wire” the informant with video and audio surveillance equipment and have him
meet with the suspect inside the target location.
If officers are not able to positively authenticate every
aspect of an informant’s information, they should refrain from acting upon it. Instead,
they should continue their investigation until they gather sufficient evidence
to take further action.
If officers are able to adequately authenticate the
information provided by the informant, they should then accurately document how
they were able to do so and they should preserve that documentation for future
court proceedings. They should accurately document the exact address, description,
and physical location of the property to be searched, as well as all available
information pertaining to the suspect and all other possible occupants. This
information will be vital to ensuring officers execute the warrant on the
If the address is 123
Drug Lane, officers must document exactly how and
where that address is displayed, such as: “A beige mailbox is located directly
in front of the residence. The number 123 is displayed in black stenciling on
the east side of the mailbox. Seven red stepping stones lead from the mailbox
to the wooden front steps of the residence. The red stepping stones are spaced
approximately 2 feet apart.
Additionally, “Five individual steps lead up to the front
porch, which is wooden. The decking of the steps and porch are painted brown,
while the railings are painted blue. The front door to the residence, which is
blue, appears to be constructed of steel and is located directly across from
the front steps. The doorframe is brown. Above the door, centered on the
doorframe, are red block letters displaying the number 123.”
This type of thorough documentation should be applied to the
entire target property so the entry team can easily identify the correct
location. Vague descriptions can lead to confusion and allow room for error,
especially when approaching the target property under the cover of darkness.
If the target location is within an apartment complex or a
motel, it is especially important that officers record minute descriptions and
accurate directions to the correct apartment/room. Enough descriptive
information must be provided so the entry team can readily differentiate
between the target location and the other apartments/rooms.
In addition to a narrative description, case officers should
produce detailed photographs and/or video surveillance footage of the target
location, as well as any available photographs of the suspect. Officers should
also create diagrams depicting a “bird’s eye” view of the entire neighborhood,
to include detailed information about the target location. With the advent of various
online mapping systems, officers can readily produce a map of the entire
neighborhood wherein the target residence is located.
However, officers should not rely solely upon this
technology, because the photographs are dated and new structures might have
been erected or other items moved since the time they were published online. Any
officers who recently visited the target location should review the maps for
accuracy and make necessary corrections. Additionally, officers should never
rely on these maps to locate exact addresses, because they are oftentimes
It is not enough for case officers to accurately document
the descriptive information pertaining to the target location; they must
thoroughly communicate that information to every officer who will be involved
in the execution of the “no-knock” search warrant. Prior to executing the
warrant, the case officer should brief the entire entry team—not just the team
leaders—and each officer should study the search warrant, photographs, narrative
descriptions, diagrams, maps, and all additional information that will help
ensure they are all operating from the same playbook.
Each officer should take adequate time to process the
information that is presented and they should not leave the briefing until they
are all absolutely certain of the target location and description.
This preparatory phase should never be overlooked, because
it is crucial to ensuring that the warrant is executed on the correct location.
If a team member misses the briefing, that member should be thoroughly briefed
before being allowed to participate in the operation. Too many things can go
wrong on such a high-risk operation and each team member must be equally
informed and completely focused in order to avoid any mistakes.
By law, “no-knock” search warrants can be justified under several
circumstances, including when there is a danger that contraband or evidence
will be destroyed within the target location. During these types of
circumstances, officers must carefully weigh the necessity of protecting and
recovering that evidence against the risk to human life—both their lives and
the potentially innocent lives that may be within the target location, such as
children and elderly persons.
Generally, because of the inherent danger associated with
high-risk entries, “no-knock” search warrants should be considered an absolute
last resort and—absent a need to save lives—officers should explore other
equally effective options of achieving the same results before resorting to a
high-risk entry. Even if authorized by law to do so, officers should bear in
mind that no amount of drugs or evidence is worth the life of even one officer
and they should weigh the pros and cons very carefully when deciding if it is absolutely
necessary to apply for a “no-knock” warrant.
Execution of the
When leaving the staging area to execute the ‘no-knock’
search warrant, the case agent or the officer most familiar with the case should
‘gear up’ and lead the entry team to the target location to ensure the warrant
is executed on the correct building. If this is not possible, the team leader
should have accompanied the case agent on a drive-by of the area to obtain a
positive identification of the target location before leaving to execute the
If any of the details or descriptions provided in the
briefing does not match what the entry team finds at the target location, officers
should refrain from entering. This cannot be overemphasized, because all too
often this option is not discussed in training or during the briefing. When faced
with this situation, some teams in the past have elected to charge forward
anyway, resulting in officers “hitting” the wrong house and inflicting
irreparable psychological damage upon innocent homeowners.
In some cases, it has resulted in the loss of innocent lives
and these incidents understandably evoke a strong sense of anger and distrust from
members of the communities in which they occur. Additionally, these incidents
almost always ignite a firestorm of attacks against this highly effective and
necessary law enforcement tool.
In order to preserve the rights and ensure the safety of
innocent citizens everywhere, it is imperative that the law enforcement
community as a whole take definitive steps to eliminate all possibilities of
ever executing a ‘no-knock’ search warrant on the wrong location again.
Administrators should adopt and enforce strict guidelines with regard to
applying for and executing these types of search warrants.
Bearing in mind that they are the only ones who can protect
innocent citizens from their own mistakes, officers everywhere should take a
personal vow to never move forward with a ‘no-knock’ search warrant unless they
are absolutely certain their information is accurate, they are positive they have
the correct location, and the ‘no-knock’ warrant is absolutely necessary.
Officers should also adhere to a simple motto with regard to executing
‘no-knock’ warrants: “When in doubt, STAY OUT!”
BJ Bourg is the chief
investigator for the Lafourche Parish District Attorney’s Office. He has more
than 20 years of law enforcement experience and has served in various
capacities, including patrol, investigations, training and special operations.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Jun 2014
Rating : Not Yet Rated
Related ProductsCriminal History ChecksCriminal InformantsFourth AmendmentIllegal Narcotics InvestigationsInformantNarcotics InvestigationsNo-KnockNo-Knock WarrantPositive IdentificationSearch WarrantsSurveillanceSurveillance EquipmentSuspectSuspects