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February 28, 2007 - Associated Press (US)

Measure: Toughen No-Knock Warrant Requirements

By Greg Bluestein, Associated Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ATLANTA - A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for tighter restrictions Wednesday on how police use "no-knock" warrants in the wake of a shootout that left an elderly woman dead after plainclothes officers stormed her home unannounced.

A measure by state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, would allow judges to grant the warrants only if police officers can prove a "significant and imminent danger to human life."

The measure, which was co-sponsored by Republican state Sen. Jeff Mullis, was prompted by a Nov. 21 shootout between Kathryn Johnston and three Atlanta Police officers during a no-knock search for drugs in her northwest Atlanta home.

Johnston, who was 92, was killed and three officers were wounded.

Fulton County prosecutors said they intend to seek murder charges against three of the officers who raided the woman's home. Police say Johnston fired a handgun and officers returned fire. An autopsy report revealed Johnston was shot five or six times in the chest, arms, legs and feet.

The shooting has brought renewed scrutiny to the police use of no-knock warrants, which are typically used to search for drugs and weapons. The special warrants are intended to prevent suspects from getting rid of evidence or to protect officers from suspects who can show a threat of violence.

Yet an Associated Press review of all no-knock warrants filed in Atlanta's Fulton County last year found that authorities often give scant detail when applying for the warrants.

Critics of Fort's measure argue that police departments should impose their own standards.

Cordele Police Chief Dwayne Orrick said a supervisor must approve warrants before they're sent to the local judge, who he said regularly batters them with questions about why a warrant is needed.

"You've got to look at each case on a case-by-case basis," he said.

"That's the purpose of a judge, to review the affidavit and determine if there's probable cause."

In the Johnston case, the system appears to have broken down.

Officers obtained the warrant by telling a magistrate judge that an undercover informant had told them that Johnston's home had surveillance cameras monitored carefully by a drug dealer named "Sam."

Days after the shooting, a man claiming to be the informant told a television station that he never purchased drugs at his home, prompting Atlanta Police to call for a review of all its procedures.

Fort said the case was a warning that it's become too easy to obtain the warrants.

"Every citizen ought to be safe and secure in their homes," he said.

"A no-knock warrant should be a special warrant, not a standard. And that's what it's evolved into."

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