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No-knock warrants rare in local police work

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June 4, 2014

JANESVILLE--The horrific case of a stun grenade blowing up in a child's face last week in Georgia raises questions about procedures here.

Members of a drug task force were raiding a home with a no-knock search warrant in Cornelia, Georgia, when they tossed the grenade into a room where six people were sleeping, according to press reports.

The 19-month old boy, Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh, and his family were visiting from Janesville and by all accounts had nothing to do with drug sales that had taken place at the house where they were staying.

The person that officers were seeking wasn't there.

A no-knock warrant, issued by a judge, allows officers to break into a home without announcing themselves. For most search warrants, officers must announce themselves and allow residents to open the door.

A Georgia state senator who has sponsored bills to limit no-knock searches on Tuesday took up the cause of the Phonesavanh family, calling for a federal investigation into the accident.

The boy was transferred to a pediatric intensive care unit at Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta on Tuesday, according to a text message from the Phonesavanh's lawyer, Mawuli Mel Davis.

The hope is the boy can be stabilized so he could undergo a second surgery to close his chest wound, Davis said.

The Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches, which is why a judge weighs information from police before issuing a search warrant.

Supreme Court rulings require an even higher standard for no-knock searches.

Nevertheless, no-knock warrants have increased dramatically in recent decades, especially in large cities, according to news reports.

“There has been a corresponding increase in the number of innocent persons accidentally injured or killed by police officers executing no-knock warrants,” according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University.

Rock County Chief Judge James Daley has said “no” to no-knock requests in the past, especially when requests increased for drug cases in the 1990s.

Daley said he can recall only two no-knock requests he approved over the years, and both were for homes of murder suspects known to have firearms.

The potential loss of evidence—drugs being flushed down a toilet, for example—is sometimes cited as a reason for a no-knock warrant.

“No, that's not enough. No-knock is intended to protect the officer's safety,” Daley said.

No-knock entries are rare in Rock County, agreed Capt. Curt Fell, who plans search-warrant raids for the Rock County Sheriff's Office's SWAT team.

Officials prefer to announce themselves before entering, otherwise suspects “don't know who's coming through, breaking into their house,” Fell said, which raises the risk of a violent confrontation.

“We usually try to find other ways of apprehending the suspect first, perhaps away from their house,” Fell added.



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