As Minnesota lawmakers and the city of Minneapolis debate new limits on no-knock search warrants following the killing of Amir Locke by a Minneapolis police officer, one point of contention has been whether to try to ban them completely or allow them in extreme or limited circumstances.
The example most often given of such an extreme circumstance: a hostage situation.
On Thursday, House Democrats detailed a bill that would sharply curb no-knock search warrants, but it does have a key exception: courts can approve a no-knock entry if there is clear evidence of significant and imminent risk of death or harm to someone confined without their consent. Democrats said the exception could allow police to use no-knock warrants in situations just short of an emergency.
But the DFL measure drew criticism from two police chiefs — one who opposes no-knock raids and one who supports them — who said the carve out may be unnecessary since officers don’t actually need a no-knock search warrant if someone’s life is in danger.
What the DFL bill would do
Last year, state Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill that would have limited no-knock search warrants in situations tied to first-degree murder, hostage taking, kidnapping, terrorism or human trafficking.
Legislators instead approved a less restrictive policy that required officers to get approval from at least two people in department management before applying for a no-knock search warrant. The legislation also banned no-knock raids tied to drug possession for personal use.
Now, Hollins has introduced a new bill, backed by many House DFLers, that would end most no-knock search warrants. It says a court can only issue a no-knock search warrant if there “is clear and convincing evidence of a significant, articulable, and imminent risk of death or great bodily harm to an individual confined without the individual’s consent at the location designated in the warrant.”
In a hearing of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee on Thursday, Hollins said many people have called for “a complete ban on this dangerous tool.” However, she said “stakeholders did agree that (if) there were situations where there’s an active significant harm occurring it would be appropriate for law enforcement to enter without a notice.”
When Locke was killed, Minneapolis policy governing search warrants required officers to either knock and wait before entering someone’s home or breach a door and then announce themselves as police just before entry. But the policy also included a clause outlining what it called “exceptional circumstances” — when announcing an officer’s presence would create an imminent threat of physical harm to someone — that allowed police to enter a home without any type of announcement.
And while the city said officers must now knock and announce themselves before a forced entry in most circumstances, they can still enter without announcing their presence if there’s “an imminent threat of harm to an individual or the public,” according to a city press release.
Officers can enter without announcing during an emergency
At the hearing Thursday, Mendota Heights Police Chief Kelly McCarthy, who also chairs the state’s police licensing and standards board, said legislators should just ban no-knock search warrants entirely.
McCarthy said banning no-knock search warrants doesn’t mean an end to forced entry on warrants, it just means “anyone present for those warrants has a reasonable opportunity to comply with the commands of the officers.”
McCarthy also said in extreme circumstances, officers don’t need a no-knock search warrant at all to enter someone’s home without announcing themselves, making the carve-out in Hollins’ bill unnecessary in her view. “Officers do not need a warrant to act when they are faced with in-progress crimes or matters of eminent safety,” she said.
William Blair Anderson, chief of police in St. Cloud, told the public safety committee that he opposes sharp limits on no-knock warrants. But he also objected to the exception for extreme or exigent circumstances, calling it “superfluous.”
“If I approach a dwelling and I have all of the information that’s in this language that somebody is in imminent danger of death or bodily harm I don’t need a warrant of any kind,” Anderson said.
Two legal experts also said police don’t need a search warrant if someone is in imminent danger.
Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said warrants are required to protect against unreasonable search and seizure protected by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Daly said there are many exceptions outlined by courts. One is for “hot pursuit,” Daly said, which is something like following a bank robber who ran away from a crime scene and into a person’s house. Another is emergency situations, like a hostage situation, where responders have to rescue someone, Daly said.
Rachel Moran, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said police could also enter someone’s home without a warrant if they have reason to believe someone is in danger and needs help — even if there’s not a potential crime involved.
On Friday, Hollins said in an interview that her bill is not aimed at having officers get a no-knock warrant in “exigent circumstances.”
“We don’t want the police to go to court and apply for a warrant if there’s an active shooter shooting out of their window,” Hollins said.
But, Hollins said, there might be a narrow list of situations that might not be considered “exigent circumstances” — so an officer could not enter immediately without announcing themselves — where police could instead get a no-knock search warrant under her legislation. “And we thought that in these circumstances if there was any chance that would not be an exigent circumstance we would still want them to go in front of a judge and ask for a warrant,” she said.
For instance, Hollins said if human trafficking is happening and “it’s a known location and we know the actors and who is going in and out but we would still prefer there to be a no-knock warrant in that situation.”
“And where somebody might be put in great bodily harm but we’re not really sure when exactly that would happen,” Hollins said.
She also said in “really extreme cases” like a “sort of Waco situation” where “we know this is happening, we know this is potentially deadly even for the people inside of that location and we want to go in and we don’t want to have to knock to do that.” (In the 1993 Waco, Texas case, federal agents raided a compound belonging to the Branch Davidian religious group, which was suspected of stockpiling illegal weapons, though there were also concerns for child welfare.)
Hollins also said political reality was at play: some House legislators did not feel comfortable with a bill banning no-knock search warrants with no exceptions.
Hollins’ no-knock measure was approved by the public safety committee on Thursday on a 10-9 vote that was largely along party lines. DFL Rep. John Huot of Rosemount voted no, and was the only legislator to break from their party. The Republican-led Senate has so far been skeptical of major restrictions to no-knock search warrants, meaning the bill may not gain traction if it passes the House.
Bill targets search warrants, not arrest warrants
Hollins also said while her bill limits search warrants, which are aimed at finding evidence of a crime, arrest warrants are governed by a different Minnesota statute that is not amended by her legislation.
Hollins said her understanding is that it’s possible police could still be granted a no-knock arrest warrant without such risk of imminent harm if her legislation passed.
Moran said arrest warrants are generally governed by the same standards as search warrants. Officers must get one from a judge and must similarly explain their rationale. She also said search warrants can “cover situations where the search is for a person,” meaning Hollins’ bill could apply when officers are arresting people.
Daly, the Hamline Mitchell professor, also said search warrants and arrest warrants are often applied for at the same home, meaning sometimes the regulations under Hollins bill might apply. “They’re asking we want to go in and seize him, arrest him, and we also want to because he’s a drug dealer … and we want to search his house,” Daly said.
Still, Moran said of Hollins’ bill: “That is a possible concern, that it doesn’t prevent no-knock entries into homes for the purpose of arrest.”