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No-knock warrants under scrutiny
Habersham toddler injured in raid stirs debate on whether technique is appropriate
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When a 19-month-old toddler was injured in the execution of a “no-knock” warrant, it raised questions on whether the technique is appropriate and safe.

A “no-knock” warrant allows a law enforcement officer to enter a dwelling or other location by surprise. But in a troubling twist, it was Habersham County officers who were surprised during a May 28 raid in Cornelia when they found young Bounkham Phonesavanh, as well as three other children, living in the residence.

“Bou Bou,” as he is called, remains in critical care after suffering burns to his face and chest from a flash grenade.

But Hall County Sheriff’s Office Major John Latty said while no-knock warrants often are invoked in discussion, they are not common.

“We hear a lot about it because quite often things occur that trouble our citizens, but they are relatively rarely used,” he said.

Latty is commander of the Enforcement Bureau, which oversees areas including criminal investigations, special operations, patrol and training.

“I would say less than 1 percent of search warrants are no-knock,” Latty said, adding, “far less than 1 percent.”

Beyond his law enforcement experience, including 25 years in Gwinnett County, Latty has an academic’s knowledge of the history and legality of no-knock warrants: he taught for more than a decade at Columbus State University on topics from legal liability to proper use of force and execution of search and seizure.

“The use of the no-knocks really grew exponentially from 1980 up until this time,” Latty said. “Having said that, in my two careers as a law enforcement officer I have never asked for no-knock on a search warrant.”

He has assisted, however, on serving a no-knock warrant. That request, and case, was the culmination of a long-term drug investigation.

“One of the most interesting I ever saw was 1980 in Gwinnett,” Latty said. “We hit an Outlaw motorcycle gang safehouse, and we had a no-knock warrant that specifically allowed us to drive a heavy car through a gate.”

Most cases are more low key, of course, but do require tailored, sworn testimony to a judge on the necessity of an unannounced entry.

“You can’t just arbitrarily request a no-knock,” Latty said. “There has to be evidence ... specific facts that would lead the judge to agree that you need the no-knock in that case.”

Latty said such a warrant allows a practice that is under heavy scrutiny. The Supreme Court assigns the highest Fourth Amendment protection to residences.

“Years ago, the Supreme Court equated a man’s home with a castle,” Latty said. “Especially appellate courts over the years have given greater sanctity ... and more stringent application of the requirements of probable cause to get into somebody’s residence.”

Because of that emphasis, a judge will want “a lot of good information to formulate that probable cause,” he added.

The scope and limits of no-knock warrants don’t derive from Georgia statute, but case law.

Gov. Nathan Deal said Thursday he is open to discussing whether legislative changes are necessary.

“It would be one of those things that I would be open to if there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it needs to be revisited and more appropriate standards and requirements put in place,” Deal said, adding he would first want to see the results of an investigation into the incident.

And closer scrutiny of no-knock warrants is not a new phenomenon. A bill to impose limits was introduced in 2007 after an elderly Atlanta woman was killed in a 2006 shootout with police during the execution of a no-knock warrant at her home.

That effort failed, largely based on opposition from Georgia sheriffs and prosecutors, and Deal said he would want law enforcement officials involved in any such discussion. He also said it might be something he refers to his Criminal Justice Reform Council for review.

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, agreed all facets have to be weighed as the incident prompts reaction.

“How many officers’ lives would be put in jeopardy had they knocked at the door?” he posed as an example of a question requiring exploration. “At the same time ... you cannot expose the innocent public to harm in doing these type of no-knocks.

“You’ve got to hear both sides of the issue before making decisions.”

Latty said officer safety enters the equation when there’s evidence a suspect or suspects would use violence or otherwise pose a threat.

“When people are heavily armed; have a history of violence; made specific threats; or have various defense mechanisms around their property, like iron bars on the windows,” he said.

Aggressive drug enforcement first inspired widespread no-knock practice four decades ago, Latty said. 

“If you’re going to ask for a no-knock, it’s normally a situation where you anticipate the specific destruction of the evidence, and that evidence is usually drugs,” he said.

Latty said it’s essentially up to the individual officer to decide whether to pursue a no-knock. In Hall County, such a decision would likely run up the chain of command based on the danger and resources associated with its application.

“Most likely we would be informed, or consulted, or both, because of the nature of it,” Latty said. “If you’re going to ask for a no-knock clause, you’ve probably got an exceptionally dangerous situation.”

Likely a tactical team would be dispatched to execute the warrant, as was the case in Habersham.

Overwhelmingly standard practice is knock and announce for searches and arrests, he said, although coming through the front door ­— knock or no — isn’t the only tactic to nab a potentially violent suspect.

“There are all kinds of ruses that are used ... to get (a suspect) out of the house,” he said.

In the end, he said, shielding the young from harm, both physical and psychological, is a foremost concern.

“One of the things that we try to avoid is even frightening a child, if we can avoid it any more than possible,” Latty said. “We go (to) great lengths to be sure that our information is good, that we protect everybody, especially our citizens and our children.”

When things don’t go that way, it’s the most difficult scenario officers will perhaps face in their careers, Latty said. Adding it would be inappropriate for the sheriff’s office to comment specifically on the incident and its ongoing investigation, Latty said he knew the officers involved were devastated.

“I can tell you that probably the people who are suffering the most other than the child and his family are the law enforcement officers involved,” Latty said. “It’s a crushing, horrifying experience to be involved in something that goes wrong.”

“We have children and grandchildren. Those officers in Habersham County, some of them have kids and grandkids,” he added. “It’s a nightmare scenario to think about inadvertently hurting (a) child. Something they’ll probably never really recover from.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.