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No knock warrants gone wrong

On the early morning of May 5th, Pima County officers and SWAT raided four homes in connection with a marijuana trafficking investigation. One home belonged to Jose and Vanessa Guerena, and housed the couple’s 4-year old son. As SWAT forced its way into the home, Jose armed himself with an AR-15 rifle, and instructed his wife and son to hide in the closet. As officers entered, Jose confronted them in the hallway. Upon sight, police opened fire, releasing more than 70 rounds within a 10-second span. 60 bullets his Jose. He was pronounced dead in less than an hour.

Upon inspecting the home, SWAT found nothing illegal. Despite having a warrant to enter the home, the police soon realized that there was no contraband of any kind within Jose’s house. He had no prior criminal record, and was a former Marine.

Arizona Supreme Court's search warrant task force

Arizona’s Supreme Court is concerned with no-knock warrants, and is taking action to address it.

On Wednesday, March, 3, 2021, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel issued an administrative order that created a special task force to look into search warrants in Arizona. The task force comprises of several different occupations: judges, professors, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and law enforcement officials. The task force’s goal? To study how no-knock warrants are being issued, and what safeguards are in place to protect officers and the public.

What are no-knock warrants? They give police permission to execute a warrant without knocking and announcing their presence. All law enforcement have to announce (1) their presence, and (2) that they have a warrant to enter. However, if an officer were to give a judge an affidavit that explained a certain danger if they were to knock, then the judge could grant a no-knock warrant.

Arizona’s no-knock rule follows the national standard that allows a judge to authorize an unannounced entry when “an announced entry to execute the warrant would endanger the safety of any person or would result in the destruction of any of the items described in the warrant” (See A.R.S. 13-3915 for more).

In short, no-knock warrants are allowed when officers are able to show a substantial likelihood that if they announced, evidence would be destroyed, or danger would threaten the entering officers.

No knock warrants gone wrong

In 2019, Houston police officers and SWAT were serving a no-knock warrant on a residence. Five hours after the warrant was issued, police kicked in the door, with officers expecting heroin to be found. Upon entering the house, 59-year-old Dennis Tuttle was startled, and opened fire on officers. Gunfire was exchanged. Both Dennis, and his wife, were instantly killed. Four officers were shot and severely wounded.

While rarely used, these type of warrants can lead to dangerous situations. While the high court will never admit so, this task force comes after Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police in March of 2020, during a drug search in her home that went wrong. That search resulted in shots being fired, and Breonna getting killed by gunfire. She was unarmed, and the warrant issued was a nighttime, no-knock warrant.

Ultimately, Breonna’s death urged the Kentucky State Senate to pass a bill that restricts the use of no-knock warrants. According to the Kentucky bill, no-knock warrants are only to be issued if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the “crime alleged is a crime that would qualify a person, if convicted, as a violent offender.”

Comments on the new task force

In a statement to the public, Justice Brutinel stated that the task force is an ongoing effort to maintain public trust and confidence. The move also aims to improve fairness and justice in the state’s judicial system.

“The Court brought its Commission on Minorities and Arizona Judicial Council together to explore specific, high-impact steps Arizona could take to improve access to justice and racial justice in Arizona’s courts…The task forces formed by the administrative orders are two of the suggested initiatives from that meeting.”

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone had this to say about Arizona’s no-knock warrants:

“No-knock warrants have inherent dangers and in specific circumstances offer tactical benefits…They should be highly scrutinized and limited in application.”

Other members, like Armando Sava, who serves as the president-elect for Arizona’s Attorney’s for Criminal Justice, also spoke on the warrants as well. As she stated:

“We want to make sure that innocent people in Arizona are not subjected to that kind of government violence,” he said. “We need to take a serious look at how people are both executing these warrants and how the courts are permitting the police to do so.”

The task force, comprised of 19 members and led by Justice Clink Bolick, will deliver its recommendations no later than October 21, 2021.

Final Thoughts

While the laws are constantly changing, 2021 has the potential to be a year of big reform changes in our criminal justice system. While the verdict is still out on that, it’s always important to know the law, and how it impacts you.

If you ever have questions, please give me a call at (480) 545 – 0700. Visit Chuck Franklin for more posts like this. I have defense trial experience that spans three decades. Experience in these issues matter.

Two police officers in uniform standing at a residential door, one knocking, illustrating a scene that could be associated with the execution of a no-knock warrant.

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