The following is the unedited version of my recent guest columnist article in the Virginia Pilot. I am posting it here to provide an opportunity for comments for those who wish to do so. I will also include a link to an LA Times story on an expedited forced entry raid conducted by four Venice, CA, policemen, with guns drawn, of Rawsome Foods to serve a search warrant seeking, no kidding, unpasteurized milk.
If I Had a Hammer
The reason you don’t leave a small child unattended with a hammer is that very quickly, everything starts to look like a nail. The same concerns we have for children apply to government.
In recent years, we have paid too little attention to the militarization of our police, with tragic results. Just over two years ago, we lost a police detective in the confusion resulting from an unnecessary forced entry service of a search warrant on a non-violent offender. In the last year, two elderly men have been killed by police in the course of a civil eviction. In these, and other unfortunate incidents, the common thread has been the use of paramilitary force where it was not warranted.
To be sure, there are circumstances in which it is necessary to force entry into a residence against resistance, and in those cases, the tactics developed for SWAT teams are effective in reducing risk to officers and civilians, but they do not reduce those risks to the level of a peaceable entry.
The courts have long recognized the danger posed by unexpected forced entry by police due to the possibility they might be mistaken for home invasion criminals and subject to armed resistance. From these concerns, the common law principle of ‘knock and announce’ has grown. The courts have held that before forcing entry to a dwelling, the police must announce their presence, allow the residents time to compose themselves, determine it is, in fact, the police seeking entry, and allow them to enter peaceably (Wilson v. Arkansas.)
The courts also recognize that there are rare circumstances when the ends of law enforcement require forced entry without warning, such as when evidence might be destroyed, hostages are in peril, or known dangerous criminals are most safely taken by surprise. These exigent circumstances must be individually evaluated and blanket categories of searches cannot be regarded as justification for expedited forced entry searches (Richards v. Wisconsin.) Yet such forced entry searches have become standard practice in some localities when conducting searches for drugs, in open disobedience to the law, and with tragic results.
It is not up to our localities whether those laws are wise or not, and it is the duty of the police to enforce all valid laws. But it is within the scope of our local authority to determine what balance we place between the need for efficient enforcement of the law and the safety and rights of the public.
Similarly, we can decide locally how to conduct evictions, particularly when age and dementia are factors. Mental health professionals seldom arrive in body armor carrying machine guns.
Here in Virginia, where the principles of individual rights and personal sovereignty were given life, we can insist that the sanctity of our homes be respected and that our police treat the least of us with the respect and deference due all citizens.
The police have no inherent powers simply because they are the police. It is within our power, and is our duty as citizens, to maintain civilian authority over our police and to authorize, or limit, what they do in our names.
As promised, the link to the LA Times article