'No-knock' search warrant incident unlikely to happen here

December 03, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

TRI-STATE - What happened in Atlanta when a wary 88-year-old woman with a gun was confronted by a group of plainclothes officers who entered her home using a "no-knock" search warrant could, in theory, happen here.

However, measures are taken to try to prevent such a deadly situation, officials with area police agencies said.

"Any warrant is an extremely volatile situation," said Col. Doug Mullendore with the Washington County Sheriff's Department. "The possibility of (an Atlanta-like situation) happening is always there but you have to take the necessary precautions to try to prevent that."

Such precautions include making sure police announce themselves.

"As the door is being broken down, everybody's yelling, 'Police! Police! Get down!'" Mullendore said.

Uniformed officers or members of the Special Response Team enter first, followed by plainclothes officers, said Mullendore, who will take over as the county's sheriff after a swearing-in ceremony Monday.

In Atlanta, the woman opened fire on the undercover officers who entered her home. They shot back, killing her.


The officers, none of whom were killed, entered the woman's home after a confidential informant said he had purchased drugs there, according to news accounts that cited police and court records.

The shooting was being investigated by the FBI and received national media coverage.

Mullendore and Hagerstown Police Department Chief Arthur Smith said no-knock warrants are advantageous in drug-related situations.

Most of the 100 or so search warrants executed every year by the Hagerstown Police Department are "knock and announce" warrants, under which police knock on the door, announce themselves and then give the residents a "reasonable" amount of time to answer, Smith said.

"What happens, of course, is they all head for the toilet and flush the drugs," he said. "We do lose a lot of evidence down the toilet by serving knock-and-announce warrants."

A no-knock warrant is helpful because it does not give the residents time to flush their drugs, or time to load a gun, Smith said.

It's important that the resident inside a home being searched know that the people entering are police officers. Smith said that when he was working as a police officer in Baltimore, a man ran toward the door during a search warrant execution. The man had a gun, but dropped it and ran when he realized the people entering were police officers, Smith said.

"The drug dealer's biggest fear is not the police, it's his competitors," Smith said.

If guns are believed to be inside the home, as is frequently the case, members of the Hagerstown Police Department's SWAT team will enter first. Their training and equipment - including protective equipment emblazoned with the word "Police" - cuts down on the chances of a shooting, Smith said.

No-knock warrants have not been used recently by the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Sheriff's Department.

After consulting with deputies and investigators with his department, Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith said his office has not requested any no-knock warrants.

Instead, deputies knock, announce who they are and then immediately break down a door, if needed, he said.

"We always send uniformed officers in first," he said.

In Maryland, a judge must decide whether police can use a no-knock warrant. Investigators must provide to the judge a written narrative that provides the probable cause they possess and outlines what officers are seeking. Warrants are reviewed by the county State's Attorney's Office and then presented to a judge for review and approval, Mullendore said.

He said the number of no-knock warrants used every month can vary from a couple to eight or nine.

Know More ... in 15 seconds

What happened: Kathryn Johnston, an 88-year-old woman, was killed Nov. 21 in her home in an Atlanta suburb after plainclothes officers broke down her door with a "no-knock" search warrant in hand.

Johnston opened fire on the officers, wounding three of them. She was killed when officers fired back.

What's next: Local police officials say measures are in place to prevent such a situation from happening here.

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