By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
When law enforcement officers serve a search warrant at a residence or business, they commonly use either a “knock and announce” or a no-knock warrant. No-knock warrants have been used when investigators can show that announcing entry into a home or business would present a physical danger to the police officers entering the building. No-knock warrants can also be used when serving a warrant would provide an opportunity for the destruction of evidence.
For example, imagine that police officers know that there are weapons in a residence where a search warrant is going to be served, and the home has a violent offender who has made threats toward law enforcement. Another example is when a search warrant is going to be served on the occupants of a residence, and the search warrant’s target is drugs. Without using no-knock warrants, the drugs could be destroyed if announcing entry into the residence provides enough time for the offenders to get rid of those drugs.
Related link: Increasing Professionalism in Policing through Education
The Department of Justice Policy on No-Knock Warrants
There has been public outcry for either the elimination or severe restrictions on no-knock warrants. In September of 2021, the Department of Justice announced a department-wide policy on the use of no-knock warrants. The new Department of Justice warrant generally limits agents from using no-knock warrants in an effort to reduce their use.
The Department of Justice policy, however, does permit the use of no-knock warrants in situations where announcing the agent’s entry would create an imminent threat of danger to the agent or other people. For federal agents to utilize a no-knock warrant due to a physical safety threat, the agents are required to obtain approval from both a federal prosecutor and from supervisors at their law enforcement agency.
The policy also provides for some additional exceptions for a no-knock warrant in rare circumstances, such as a national security matter. In this case where an agent seeks a no-knock warrant exception and there is no imminent threat of physical safety, the new Department of Justice policy requires agents to obtain approval from the head of their law enforcement agency and either the U.S. Attorney or Assistant Attorney General before seeking judicial approval. These requirements set a very high bar for a no-knock warrant to be issued in any case where there is no threat of imminent danger.
Some States Have Limited or Banned No-Knock Warrants
The Department of Justice policy may have implications for local and state police agencies as public scrutiny on no-knock warrants continues. In April of 2021, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear signed a bill into law that limits the use of no-knock warrants throughout the state of Kentucky.
In Kentucky’s new law, no-knock warrants are banned except in certain situations. Those situations include search warrants associated with a crime that would qualify a person as a violent offender or if announcing entry into a residence would endanger someone’s life.
In Kentucky, no-knock warrants must be served with body-worn cameras and law enforcement insignia that can clearly be identified. Other states – such as Florida, Oregon and Virginia – have banned no-knock warrants.
Increased Oversight and Guidance Would Be a Better Solution Than Banning No-Knock Warrants
Banning no-knock warrants has implications in law enforcement because their ban can severely limit police officers’ ability to safely serve a warrant or preserve evidence. Instead of banning the use of no-knock warrants, increased oversight and guidance on their use may be more appropriate.
Increased judicial oversight could be used to make the use of no-knock warrants only available in rare and certain circumstances, while still allowing no-knock warrants to be a tool that law enforcement can use when necessary. In addition, police agencies should provide clear policies and procedures that guide the use of no-knock warrants, which should only be used in rare situations where announcing police officer entry poses imminent risk of danger or death or if there is a possibility that evidence will be destroyed if an announcement is made.
Depending upon the situation, banning no-knock search warrants places police officers and the occupants within a building in increased danger. No two search warrants are the same. Consequently, restrictions on the use of no-knock warrants such as the new policy by the Department of Justice is more appropriate than a full ban of their use.