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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 investigations.

Authentication of Information

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.

Accurate Documentation

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 correct location.

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 inaccurate.

Thorough Communication

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.

Necessity of “No-Knock” Searches

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 Warrant

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 warrant.

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

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2014

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