“They Came in Like Rambo”

SearchWarrant

From Today’s Washington Posta major investigation about the systemic trauma inflicted on the black community by the militarized and unconstitutional search warrant practices of the DC police.  (The article highlights the important work being done by by Systemic Justice Project Board of Advisors member Alec Karakatsanis.)  Here’s an excerpt:

Sallie Taylor was sitting in her apartment in Northeast Washington one evening in January 2015 watching “Bible Talk” when her clock fell off the wall and broke. She turned and looked up. Nine D.C. police officers smashed through her door, a shotgun was pointed at her face and she was ordered to the floor.

“They came in like Rambo,” said Taylor, a soft-spoken 63-year-old grandmother who was dressed in a white nightgown and said she has never had even a speeding ticket.

The heavily armed squad thought they were searching the residence of a woman arrested two miles away the previous night for carrying a half-ounce vial of PCP.

Taylor, who did not know the woman, was terrified. Trembling, she told police that the woman did not live there. Officers spent 30 minutes searching the house anyway, going through her boxes and her underwear drawer. They found no drugs and left without making an arrest.

The search warrant executed at Taylor’s apartment cited no evidence of criminal activity there. Instead, in an affidavit to a judge, police argued that they should be able to search for drugs there based on their “training and experience” investigating the drug trade. They relied on an address they found in a court-records system for the woman arrested with PCP.

A Washington Post review of 2,000 warrants served by D.C. police between January 2013 and January 2015 found that 284 — about 14 percent — shared the characteristics of the one executed at Taylor’s apartment. In every case, after arresting someone on the street for possession of drugs or a weapon, police invoked their training and experience to justify a search of a residence without observing criminal activity there. The language of the warrants gave officers broad leeway to search for drugs and guns in areas saturated by them and to seize phones, computers and personal records.

In about 60 percent of the 284 cases, police executing the warrants found illegal items, ranging from drug paraphernalia to guns, The Post found. The amounts of drugs recovered were usually small, ranging from residue to marijuana cigarettes to rocks of cocaine. About 40 percent of the time — in 115 cases — police left empty-handed.

In a dozen instances, The Post found, officers acted on incorrect or outdated address information, subjecting such people as Taylor to the fright of their lives.

Almost all of the 284 raids occurred in black communities. In 276 warrants in which The Post could determine a suspect’s race, just three originated with arrests of white suspects. The remaining 99 percent involved black suspects. In the District, 94 percent of people arrested in 2013 for gun or drug charges were black, according to FBI crime data.

The 284 warrants reviewed by The Post differ from the usual pattern of police warrants. D.C. police have said at public hearings that the typical raid happens only after undercover officers or confidential informants have purchased drugs or guns from inside a home or police have conducted surveillance there.

The searches are occurring at a time when public attention is highly focused on interactions between police and blacks nationwide, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and concern about the aftereffects of the drug war. In Maryland this month, lawmakers proposed legislation that would require police to reimburse residents for damage to their property when police execute a warrant and find nothing. In Philadelphia, police were criticized in October by the executive director of the city’s citizen review board for harsh treatment of residents during raids.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from “unreasonable searches,” generally requiring government agents to obtain a warrant from a judge by showing they have probable cause to think that they will find a specific item at a specific location. In recent decades, police have been given wide latitude by the courts to conduct searches aimed at removing drugs and guns from the streets.

Attorney Alec Karakatsanis, of the nonprofit group D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law, said warrants that rely on training and experience as justification for a search subject the black community to abusive police intrusion based on flimsy investigative work. In the past two years, he has filed seven civil rights lawsuits in federal court challenging D.C. police’s practice of seeking search warrants based solely on an officer’s training and experience.

“They have turned any arrest anywhere in the city into an automatic search of a home, and that simply cannot be,” said Karakatsanis, who spent three years studying the issue, starting when he worked at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. “It would work a fundamental change in the balance of power in our society between government agents and individual rights.”

***

Read the entire article here.

Read more about the work that Alec and Equal Justice Under Law are doing here.

In an e-mail, Alec emphasized that:

“the stakes are enormous.  The D.C. police have defended their right to enter any person’s home based solely on the person being related to or associating with any person that police have arrested, and the police have claimed in federal court that they have the right to strip search any person they find in any home, even innocent people and even children as young as six years old.”

Related posts here.

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