Earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature restricted when police can use no-knock search warrants, a controversial tactic in which police enter a building or home by force without warning — and without first identifying themselves.
No-knock warrants have faced sharp criticism across the U.S. since police in Louisville shot and killed Breonna Taylor during a botched raid; they also drew the scrutiny of Minnesota lawmakers hoping to reform police after a Brooklyn Center officer fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in April.
After lengthy negotiations, the Republican-led Minnesota Senate and the DFL-majority House voted to ban police from using no-knock raids to seek drugs meant for personal use. Legislators also required police department leaders to conduct more review of warrants before they’re authorized.
The legal changes may not force a wide shift in police practices: Law enforcement leaders say they believe no-knock warrants are rare across much of the state and are typically reserved for cases more serious than small amounts of drugs.
But those observations are largely anecdotal. There appears to be little, if any comprehensive data on the subject in Minnesota, meaning the biggest impact of the new no-knock law may come from a provision requiring police to give the state information on their use of the tactic.
Why no-knocks are controversial
Police sometimes argue no-knock search warrants can be justified when they’re concerned someone will destroy evidence of a crime or when the element of speed and surprise can help them safely secure evidence in a dangerous situation or arrest a dangerous person.
Joe Leko, chief deputy of the Dakota County Sheriff’s office, said the priority of his department, and the drug task force it participates in with other agencies, in no-knock raids is not to secure evidence quickly out of concern it may be destroyed. Instead, Leko said, they’re viewed as a last resort intended to safeguard officers in case a criminal suspect has a weapon. If officers announce their presence before an entry, Leko said, it can give a person time to find weapons and put police crossing into the house through the doorway at risk.
“When you use a no-knock you can hopefully use that element of surprise sometimes to at least get inside the house and spread out where you’re not all just coming through that funnel where if somebody had a rifle or a gun they just take you one by one as you’re coming through,” Leko said.
During a March hearing on a House DFL bill to restrict no-knock warrants, William Blair Anderson, chief of St. Cloud police, said the measure would “create an exponentially higher level of danger in an inherently dangerous profession.”
“We are going to start seeing many, many great law enforcement professionals walking away, and who could blame them,” Anderson said. “We are simply unnecessarily putting them in harm’s way. This is one of the most effective tools that we use, and I can not overstate that we do treat this with the proper reverence that it deserves.”
The Taylor case in Louisville, in which officers claim they did knock and announce themselves before entry, isn’t the only reason no-knock raids are facing more scrutiny. Critics say the raids create dangerous and chaotic situations in which people can mistake police for home intruders.
At the March legislative hearing, Carlotta Madison told the story of when her brother Andre Madison was shot during a harrowing and disjointed 1996 no-knock raid over suspected marijuana sales. There are conflicting accounts of what happened. But Minneapolis cops fired extensively into the northside house and accused Madison of pointing a shotgun at them. It’s unclear if Madison ever fired the weapon and while one officer was shot, it may have been by another cop in a case of friendly fire.
Andre, who dropped the shotgun during the raid, “did not understand that it was police officers coming through the door,” Carlotta Madison said. Andre Madison died years later of his injuries, according to his sister.
Students at the Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas Law School have argued for an outright end to no-knock warrants, which they said puts both police and the subjects of raids in danger. They also argue the tactic conflicts with constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Lawmakers eventually passed a law that says police can’t use a no-knock search warrant when the only crime alleged is possession of a controlled substance, except if there’s probable cause that substance is “for other than personal use.”
The legislation also sets out some guidelines for applying to a judge for such a warrant, such as information on why a “knock and announce” warrant can’t be used. A no-knock warrant also has to be approved by at least two officers in management at a law enforcement agency, such as a police chief. Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope Democrat who helped negotiate the final police accountability legislation at the Capitol, said in late June that the new law will help ensure more information is collected for a judge determining whether to grant a no-knock warrant application.
Police leaders contend there is already a high bar to justify receiving a no-knock warrant from a judge. Some say they complete a detailed “threat assessment” and some run the warrant application by a county attorney as well.
How and when the raids are typically used
How often police use no-knock search warrants appears to vary widely by department.
Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said such warrants are “seldomly done” at all by most police departments in the state and typically limited to cases involving serious crimes like homicide or robbery and if a suspect is believed to have weapons.
Bill Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, said he asked some sheriffs around the state about how often they typically use no-knock warrants and found in more rural areas, they appear to be extremely rare while in urban settings they’re used more frequently.
Some police departments have turned away from no-knock warrants or put new limits on them in recent years. Kelly McCarthy, who chairs the state’s officer licensing and training board and is chief of the Mendota Heights police department, said in late June that she has served two no-knock warrants during her two decades in law enforcement, both for weapons cases.
“When I look back at it, even the ones I did for guns, I shouldn’t have,” McCarthy said. “It would have been safer just to call the guy on the phone and be like, ‘Hey, you need to come out.’ You’re not going to flush a gun down the toilet.
“I would not have our officers serve a no-knock search warrant unless some pretty serious conditions were met. I just think they’re inherently too dangerous for everyone involved.”
Meanwhile, Minneapolis police said in 2020 they executed roughly 139 no-knock warrants per year before announcing new limits on the practice. An agency spokesman didn’t respond when asked if that average has dropped since.
McCarthy and Hutton said various drug and gang task forces — some made up of police within the state and some including federal agencies — may be more likely to use no-knock warrants.
Douglas Neville, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety (DPS), declined to say whether he knew if state agents involved in federal task forces participated in no-knock warrants. He also declined interviews on behalf of the state regarding Minnesota drug and gang task forces overseen by DPS and a coordinating council created by the Legislature. Violent crime enforcement teams, as the state calls them, “have not used no-knock warrants for some time,” Neville said in an email.
However, Leko, from the Dakota sheriff’s office, said the Dakota County Drug Task Force applied for 21 no-knock warrants in 2020, among 232 total search warrants. It’s unclear how many were served as no-knock raids. “That’s the nature of their job, basically, is they’re seizing drugs,” Leko said of the task force, and people with those drugs sometimes have weapons or a history of assault.
The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office S.W.A.T. team participates in about 15 no-knock search warrants each year, said spokeswoman Tierney Peters. Most of those warrants are obtained by other departments who ask for Anoka’s help, Peters said.
Police leaders widely said no-knock warrants wouldn’t typically be used for personal-use drug possession cases.
Hutton said sherrifs would commonly use them in raids tied to violent crimes involving weapons or a threat against police or others. St. Paul police don’t use no-knock warrants unless a person’s life is in danger, a longstanding policy, said spokesman Steve Linders. “We always announce,” he said.
Leko said the Dakota County task force goes after “bigger fish” like drug trafficking groups rather than people who have narcotics for personal use. “We would not risk ourselves or somebody else to go after a meth pipe,” he said. “No amount of property or drug is worth risking somebody’s life.”
Brian Smith, acting assistant chief for the U.S. Marshal’s Service District of Minnesota, said he couldn’t think of a time when the service, which leads the North Star Fugitive Task Force, had asked for or executed a no-knock warrant. But he said they could seek one if a suspect is “extremely violent” and officer safety would be in jeopardy. Other federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, which also lead task forces in Minnesota, did not respond to requests for comment.
Frazier and others defended the new limit on no-knock warrants, saying it was still important reform. “Right now, without a ban that could absolutely be the case, they could say, ‘We know this person is in possession of drugs,’” Frazier said.
Julia Decker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said “if the police are saying we don’t do this anyways, then it really shouldn’t be an issue then if it’s now officially in statute.”
But Albert Goins, a criminal and civil rights attorney who represented Andre Madison in a 2004 civil lawsuit against the Minneapolis Police Department, said people can be convicted of selling drugs in any amount, and cops can simply say “we allege that it’s for sale” in a warrant application.
“That’s the silliest statute I’ve ever seen,” Goins said of the new law. “That’s just like the other things they’ve passed, which seem to be meaningless.”
Data collection key, advocates say
For now, information on no-knock warrants appears to be largely anecdotal. There are police reports and other public records detailing use of no-knock warrants in individual cases across the state, and some agencies track their use of the warrants. But no one interviewed could identify centralized or comprehensive data on the practice.
One major change in the law will shed more light on the situation by requiring police departments to report information to DPS on no-knock warrants applied for and executed, as well as the number of injuries or fatalities tied to a raid. “That’s the accountability and transparency piece,” Frazier said.
Decker said the data is an important transparency measure that will help clarify when, where and how no-knock warrants are actually being used. “Is it being used for this personal possession offense? We don’t have statistics on it,” Decker said.