Almost a year and a half after a Minneapolis SWAT team fatally shot 22-year-old Amir Locke during a no-knock raid in a downtown apartment, a new law will go into effect making it more difficult for courts to sign off on the controversial practice.
Nationwide attempts to curtail the use of no-knock warrants began after the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor during a botched raid in Louisville, Kentucky, but gained steam in Minnesota after Locke’s death. Protesters filled the entrance to Minneapolis City Hall in the days after his killing, and state lawmakers brought a measure limiting the practice back to committee a year later, where it ultimately passed the Legislature and was signed into law.
Despite stricter criteria for law enforcement to get a no-knock warrant, the new restrictions are not a total ban, leaving the door open for use in exigent circumstances like hostage situations. Some believe had the new restrictions been in place during the ill-fated Minneapolis raid, Locke would still be alive. Others remain unsure.
Amir Locke’s killing
In February last year, Locke was asleep on the couch in his cousin’s apartment in downtown Minneapolis when a Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) SWAT team executed a no-knock search warrant as part of a St. Paul murder investigation by entering the apartment using a key.
Startled, Locke rose from the couch and grabbed a gun he was licensed to carry before Officer Mark Hanneman shot and killed Locke just seconds after the officers entered the apartment. Body camera footage released later showed officers wearing protective gear and shouting commands like “Hands!” and “Police search warrant!”
In the application for the warrant, executed in the investigation of St. Paul man Otis Elder’s murder, officers specifically asked to do the search without knocking and outside of the hours of 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. They cited a history of violence by the suspects and wanted to ensure officer safety due to the use of a gun in the homicide that they said could pierce body armor.
Attorney General Keith Ellison and then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined to press charges against Hanneman, stating bodycam footage showed Locke’s gun was pointed at Hanneman and that it was unclear whether the officer violated the state’s use of deadly force laws.
The new law
At the end of the legislative session in May, lawmakers passed a robust public safety budget package that also featured dozens of policy provisions, including a new measure that imposes new restrictions on no-knock search warrants.
As of July 1, courts can’t issue or approve no-knock search warrants unless law enforcement demonstrate in their application that the search cannot be conducted while no one is home, and that the people inside are threatening death or harm to either the officers or to other people inside the residence.
Officers must also loudly announce themselves as they enter the premises.
Rick Petry, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said it’s difficult to definitively say whether the restrictions in the new statute would have prevented the raid that ended in Locke’s killing.
On one hand, the officers executing the warrant were entering the home of someone who was believed to be a suspect in a murder case, and therefore presumed to be armed having used a firearm to kill someone already. But, Petry said, the second piece of the new restrictions dictating whether there was an imminent threat might have been in question.
“An imminent threat typically means it’s about to happen right now, and that means that you would have to demonstrate that there’s somebody in there right now that’s armed and if the officers knock, they’re going to start doing something to cause death or harm to someone,” he said. “Based on what’s been publicly released, I don’t know that they could have made that kind of showing.”
Not a total ban
The new restrictions raise the threshold for the types of situations for which courts can issue no-knock warrants, but the controversial tactic can still be carried out when law enforcement need it in exigent circumstances like hostage situations.
The typical process requires law enforcement to fill out an application accompanied by an affidavit that explains the facts and what they expect to accomplish with the warrant. A judge then reviews the affidavit and makes their determination.
Within that process there are spots for potential human error, Petry said. For example, the signing judge that typically reviews the applications is signing dozens of other things a day and is sometimes asked by law enforcement to expedite it further.
“They’re going to review this stuff, but it may be sort of a cursory review, rather than a more thoughtful and considered review,” he said. “It’s not like they get the search warrant, affidavit and application and then sit on it for a day or two and think about it. Oftentimes, especially with something like this, it’s exigent circumstances and the cops are trying to get in there fast.”
Though they were hoping lawmakers would ban the practice, Andre Locke said the new restrictions are a good start. He believes that under the new law, his son wouldn’t have died.
“The new no-knock restrictions that are in place now would have saved Amir’s life,” said Andre Locke, Amir’s father.
As they continue to mourn the loss of their son, Andre Locke said he and his family are advocating for a no-knock search warrant ban on the federal level and continue to fight for justice for Amir.
“My son tragically had to lose his life in order to reach this point, but everything has to start somewhere,” he said. “Amir’s legacy and his name will be attached to this new law that restricts no-knock warrants.”