ATLANTA – The evidence police normally get through search warrants without knocking is not worth the inherent risk of knocking on a citizen’s door unannounced in the middle of the night, a criminal defense attorney said Tuesday.
“No knock warrants are used almost exclusively for drug cases. They are never used for kidnapping, break-ins, murder or theft, ”Catherine Bernard, partner at Bernards Bernard & Johnson LLC, told members of a Senate study committee. “[But] No knock warrants are incredibly dangerous for everyone on both sides of the transaction. “
The Senate Study Committee on Law Enforcement Reform was formed this year as a result of a hate crime law passed by the General Assembly at the end of this year’s term in June. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives’ non-civil Justice Committee held hearings in the summer and fall to discuss possible reforms to the police force and the state criminal justice system.
In addition to arrest warrants, the committees also issued statements on the Georgian Civil Liability Act and the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity”, which protects police officers from civil suits under certain circumstances.
While Georgian law does not give police the power to execute search warrants without knocking, judges can and can sign orders that allow them, if law enforcement agencies can demonstrate that knocking on a criminal suspect’s door could be dangerous or hamper an investigation, for example, giving suspects time to flush drugs down a toilet.
Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said arrest warrants are rare in Georgia.
“I’ve been a prosecutor for 32 years. I haven’t seen many of them, ”he said.
Bernard said no-knock warrants are routine, but most don’t get attention because they don’t deliver the tragic results that make them high-profile cases.
Exceptions in Georgia include the deaths of David Hooks, a 59-year-old grandfather in East Dublin, who was shot in a drug robbery in 2015 based on false information from an informant, and Kathryn Johnston, an elderly woman from Atlanta, who was shot dead in 2006 in a death was raid by undercover police at the wrong address.
“Innocent lives are destroyed by no-knock search warrants,” said Bernard.
Bernard said it was untenable to justify arrest warrants to prevent suspects from getting rid of illegal drugs because someone who possesses a large amount of drugs cannot dispose of them quickly.
“If it’s something that can be flushed down the toilet, it’s not worth risking someone’s life,” she said.
While Bernard called on the senators not to tamper with the current state law banning no-knock warrants, others who testified called for the repeal of Georgia’s Citizens Detention Act, which was under scrutiny in the Ahmaud Arbery case.
Last spring, three white men were arrested in February for shooting the death of Arbery, an unarmed black man from Braunschweig who was jogging in the men’s neighborhood. At first, the local prosecutor’s office refused to bring charges, citing the Citizens Detention Act.
“The racist history of our law is shown,” said Mazie Lynn Causey, general counsel of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It enables private individuals to take on the role of executor, prosecutor and judge.”
Other witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing complained that the burden of proof to win such cases is virtually impossible if law enforcement officers who commit misconduct in the performance of their duties are given qualified immunity from civil claims.
Chris Stewart, an Atlanta personal injury and civil rights attorney, said he was working on legislative proposals to either eliminate or amend Georgia’s Qualified Immunity Act.
However, Skandalakis said that qualified immunity serves a useful purpose in law enforcement as it encourages police officers to do their jobs without fear of being sued.
“Qualified immunity is not absolute immunity,” he added. “A police officer who does not follow guidelines and procedures or does not act appropriately can lose qualified immunity.”
Both the House Committee and Senate are expected to make recommendations for the entire General Assembly to consider when lawmakers will return to the 2021 session next month.