Maryclaire Dale, The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- In April 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court set limits
on when authorities can conduct "no-knock" police searches. The
decision came just five days after a 21-year-old drug suspect was
killed in a no-knock raid.
John Hirko Jr. died when Bethlehem police stormed his home without
knocking and threw a flash-bang device into a front window,
inadvertently sparking an intense fire that prevented them from
rescuing Hirko after they had shot him.
An autopsy showed Hirko died from the bullets police fired from both
the front and rear of the house -- allegedly after he fired once at
them. Hirko was struck 11 times in all, nine times in the back.
A civil rights lawsuit charging wrongful death and negligence over
Hirko's death was scheduled for trial Thursday in federal court in
Allentown, and is expected to be closely watched in the region and
A sizable judgment in the Bethlehem case could prompt the city of
78,000, which has a $34 million annual budget, to raise taxes or
float a loan. The plaintiffs rejected a $500,000 settlement offer,
the city's liability insurance limit at the time, saying it would
take $20 million to settle.
"I think everybody's concerned," Mayor James Delgrosso said this month.
Hirko had no prior convictions, but police said they thought that
executing the search warrant could prove dangerous. A confidential
informant who allegedly bought drugs from Hirko three times -- once
just before the raid -- reported that Hirko was in the living room
using heroin and cocaine, with a handgun nearby.
Police, dressed in unmarked black clothes and masks, made a small
hole in the window and tossed in the flash-bang device, which sets
off a blinding flash and loud noise. At about the same time,
according to their lawyer, they shouted "Police!," an assertion
plaintiffs plan to challenge.
"Everything we did was proper and within the bounds of constitutional
law at that time," said Bethlehem Solicitor Joseph Leeson Jr.
The two sides also will dispute whether Hirko's gun was fired. The
defense said it was found wrapped in a cloth where he kept it, with
all 10 bullets still inside. Leeson said one bullet was missing.
State Attorney General Mike Fisher, whose office investigated Hirko's
death, later termed it a justifiable homicide.
Across the country, innocent residents have died during no-knock
searches, including a 75-year-old Boston minister and a 57-year-old
New York woman who both suffered heart attacks when police raided the
"Every little town and burg now believes that they need a
paramilitary assault team," said lawyer John Karoly Jr. of Allentown,
who represents Hirko's survivors and landlord.
Attorney John Wesley Hall Jr. who's written a textbook on search and
seizure law, said the approximately 50 no-knock cases reported in the
legal literature each year are just a fraction of the total
"The reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg, because so many
cases get disposed of at the trial level by a guilty plea, or because
the cops did (the raid) right," Hall said.
In its 1997 ruling, the Supreme Court said authorities must be able
to show they had a reason to believe a suspect would be dangerous or
destroy evidence before entering homes without knocking and
announcing themselves. Police should otherwise give people the choice
to evacuate safely, the court said.
Federal courts have since ruled that police must wait a "reasonable"
amount of time -- more than 15 or 20 seconds -- for a response if
they do knock.
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This fall, the Supreme Court will hear a Las Vegas case in which
police burst into a drug suspect's apartment while he was in the
shower. An appeals court ruled that authorities acted unreasonably in
battering down the door just 15 to 20 seconds after their initial