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21 February 2014

Senate Bill 259, House Bill 1046, and the Fight to End No-Knock Warrants in Georgia

"Every citizen ought to be safe and secure in their own home. There’s no higher right."

Those are the words of Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort (D - Atlanta). He made the comments in 2008 after the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill he sponsored, Senate Bill 259; a bill restricting the use of no-knock warrants across the state of Georgia [Ga. Senate panel votes to tigthen no-knock warrant requirements. Access North Georgia.com. Retrieved on 21 February 2014.].

(Kathryn Johnston. Image courtesy MSNBC)
Senator Fort's bill came about after Atlanta police officers used a no-knock warrant to enter the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston (pictured right) unannounced, shot and killed her, then had the temerity to claim she was running drugs out of her house. The community was outraged. I was outraged. And I applauded Senator Fort for his efforts to curtail no-knock warrants in Georgia.

Senator Fort's bill, S.B. 259, contained the following language on page 1, lines 19 – 23:

No search warrant shall be issued which contains a no-knock provision unless the affidavit or testimony supporting the warrant establishes by probable cause that if an officer were to knock and announce identity and purpose before entry, such act of knocking and announcing would likely pose a significant and imminent danger to human life or imminent danger of evidence being destroyed.

The Atlanta NAACP supported Senator Fort’s bill.

Republicans supported Senator Fort's bill.

Former Senator Seth Harp (R - Midland) said, "No-knock warrants are about as great an abrogation of the privacy of the home as you can get. We need for people to be protected in their homes."

Senator Fort’s bill passed 44 – 8, but stalled out in the House.

(Georgia Senator Vincent Fort expresses outrage at HB1046 on Twitter)
Flash forward six years later, and we find Georgia in an uproar over a new bill to restrict no-knock warrants. Senator Fort is beside himself with disbelief over House Bill 1046; a simple three page bill that says police must knock and announce their identity, authority, and purpose before entry.

On knock-and-announce, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in Hudson v. Michigan, explained, “The interests protected by the knock-and-announce rule include human life and limb (because an unannounced entry may provoke violence from a surprised resident), property (because citizens presumably would open the door upon an announcement, whereas a forcible entry may destroy it), and privacy and dignity of the sort that can be offended by a sudden entrance.”

House Bill 1046 strengthens the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.

H.B. 1046 provides legal immunity to a surprised resident who may react violently to police officers just barging in unannounced. Law-abiding citizens do not need to face criminal charges or civil penalties for shooting someone who entered their home unannounced.

When criminals kick in someone's front door, enter their home unannounced, and search and seize that individual's personal effects, it's known as burglary. Burglary should not be legal when cops do it, unless the police obtain a regular search warrant that describes the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. That's basic Fourth Amendment stuff.

On page 2, line 48 of the House Bill 1046, it reads, “No search warrant shall be issued which contains a no-knock provision.

Why? Why is that language there?

Because in 2008, John Lewis and his girlfriend Heather James were held at gunpoint while Gwinnett County police officers entered their home unannounced with a no-knock warrant, searched their home for a suspected methamphetamine distributor, before realizing they had the wrong house and apologizing to Lewis before going to another home to arrest Efrain Pedruza [Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, "Gwinnett police break down wrong door", 10 December 2008].

It’s there because, as I highlighted at the beginning of this piece, Atlanta police officers entered the home of Kathryn Johnston unannounced, with a no-knock warrant, shot and killed the 92-year-old lady, then claimed she was running drugs out of her house. She wasn't.

If law enforcement believes I’m engaging in illegal activity, they need to obtain a regular search warrant that describes the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized, knock and announce themselves, allow me to review their warrant, then I will be glad to allow them into my home.

Otherwise, no-knock warrants, in my opinion, violate our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Someone wise once said, I would rather see 100 guilty people go free, than have one innocent person go to jail.

I would rather see 100 criminals protected from a no-knock warrant, than have one innocent person be violated by a no-knock warrant. One violation is one too many for me.