Typically, when police officers serve a search warrant before entering a home or business, they announce themselves. But in certain situations, officers believe the element of surprise works best, which means they enter without knocking or identifying themselves.
So called "no-knock" warrants have received a lot of attention lately after Houston police shot and killed two people while serving a no-knock. Five officers were also injured.
But Milwaukee police have recently had their own problems with no-knocks. Officer Matthew Rittner was shot and killed while serving a no-knock warrant on Milwaukee’s south side in early February.
Craig Mastantuono is an attorney with Mastantuono and Coffee, it’s a criminal defense practice Milwaukee. He says that in order to get a warrant, police have to show probable cause that evidence of a crime exists in the place being searched. Mastantuono says the request has to be specific about what’s being looked for and why officers believe it’s there. A no-knock warrant allows entry into a place without an announcement.
“And yes, that means breaking through the door,” Mastantuono says.
Mastantuono says no-knock warrants are inherently more dangerous for everyone involved.
“A no-knock warrant immediately escalates the situation to force because it starts with force. A forcible entry. There’s no steps taken prior to that forcible entry that is less than forceful. There’s no knock, there’s no announcement, there’s no attempt to gain voluntary submission to a search warrant,” Mastantuono says.
And Mastantuono says that in a large majority of cases people voluntary submit meaning they don’t fight or flee.
In Milwaukee County, most search warrants are reviewed by a prosecutor before being presented to a judge who makes the final decision on whether a warrant is granted and if the no-knock provision is necessary. Karen Loebel is deputy district attorney for Milwaukee County. She says no matter what has been approved by a judge, officers have to be aware of changing circumstances — and ready to adapt accordingly, in how they carry out a search warrant.
“So for example, if an officer has a no-knock provision but then they get to the scene and the reason for that has dissipated, they need to knock and announce. Similarly, if the officer has no advanced notice that there are security measures or there are weapons or something else but they get to the scene and it appears that there is something in the circumstance that’s going to present a danger to the officer. Or going to present a likelihood that evidence will be destroyed, something like that, then they can dispense with the knock and announce requirement even though the judge hasn’t authorized it,” Loebel says.
Loebel says most of the search warrants that she reviews deal with drug traffickers and armed offenders and she says police usually apply for a no-knock provision when they believe guns are involved. Still, Loebel says it’s impossible to say how many no-knock warrants police here request because no one keeps those stats.
Across the country, Jim Bueermann says he doesn’t believe no-knocks are that prevalent. He spent more than 30 years working as a police officer and is now president of a police consulting firm called Future Policing Strategies based in California.
“During my time as a cop, I personally have never done that. And that includes the almost five years I was a narcotics investigator serving lots and lots of search warrants or during the time that I was on a swat team,” Bueermann says.
Just like locally, Bueermann says there is no one tracking how common no-knocks are nationally. But he says due to the added danger, police departments that are sticking to best practices shy away from no-knock warrants.
“Especially if you do it at night or early in the morning when people are still asleep. The people inside might reasonably think somebody is breaking into their house intending to do them harm. And if they have a weapon with them, they may try to defend themselves thinking that they’re about to be robbed or hurt,” Bueermann says.
Milwaukee criminal defense attorney Craig Mastantuono says that if someone shoots an officer serving a no-knock, an argument could be made for self-defense.
“Self-defense would be under the circumstances I thought that my using lethal force was necessary to defend myself,” Mastantuono says.
Mastantuono says it would then be up to a jury and judge to accept the self-defense argument as reasonable. But Mastantuono says a district attorney is not required to charge a lower offense if there’s a no-knock warrant being executed if someone is shot.