On March 13, 2020 Police in Louisville, Kentucky executed a “no knock” warrant at the home of Breonna Taylor, a young African American emergency room technician. Taylor was asleep in bed with her boyfriend Kenneth Walker around midnight when Mr. Walker says that plainclothes police officers briefly beat on the door, but did not announce themselves, before breaking through the door into the apartment. Startled and believing that a break-in was occurring, Mr. Walker grabbed his licensed gun and shot at the intruders who opened fire shooting Breonna 8 times and killing her. Neighbors in the apartment building confirm that police beat on the door briefly before breaking it open but no one heard them announce themselves. Breonna died at the scene and Mr. Walker was arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer. The charges against him have since been dismissed.
The police employed the controversial no-knock warrant when entering Breonna Taylor’s home just after midnight. A no-knock warrant is a type of search warrant that allows police officers to enter the premises without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose before entering. Since a 1958 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court the police were required to give notice of their authority and purpose before making a forced entry when executing a warrant. In 1995 the Supreme Court upheld these “knock and announce” requirements but allowed for exceptions to the rule if the police can demonstrate exigent circumstances such as a suspect possibly destroying evidence, fleeing or endangering the officers. The Court later ruled that a violation of the knock and announce rule does not require suppression of the evidence obtained in the ensuing search. The specter of evidence being suppressed had long been a deterrent to police against violating the knock and announce rules.
It is estimated that there are currently about 60,000 no-knock warrant searches performed by police in the United States each year. There are many instances of serious injuries and deaths of both civilians and police officers that can be directly attributed to no-knock warrants. While it is not difficult to find cases such as these, it is difficult to find cases where the officers involved faced criminal charges. One such case involves a botched no knock raid resulting in the police shooting and killing a 7-year-old African American girl named Aiyana Mo’nay Stanley-Jones in Detroit in 2010. The officer faced involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment with a gun charges. There were two mistrials and the prosecutor eventually cleared the officer of all charges eliminating the possibility of a third trial. Most cases where no-knock warrants end in violence are resolved through civil cases where monetary settlements from the local government or police departments are the only justice given to the victims and their families.
Breonna Taylor’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the three officers for compensatory and punitive damages in April. The lawsuit alleges that the officers are responsible for battery, wrongful death, excessive force, negligence and gross negligence. Breonna’s case has garnered attention in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent worldwide protests demanding justice and reform. Breonna’s Law was signed in June and now bans no-knock warrants in Louisville and requires officers to turn on their body cameras 5 minutes before serving a warrant. It remains to be seen if criminal charges are filed against the officers that killed Breonna. The Kentucky Attorney General and FBI continue their investigations and decline to comment about possible charges amid ongoing concerns about civic unrest within the city.