From the archives of the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline
Editor's note: This article was originally published at the advent of these court decisions. The information surrounding the cases and the basis of the decisions remain relevant.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that "no-knock" entry into a building where a suspect is thought to be hiding is acceptable if the officers have reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence would be "dangerous or futile," even in cases where property is destroyed. This decision terminates a loose end left by an earlier case, Richards v. Wisconsin [117 SCt 1416 (1997)], that stated that no-knock entries were acceptable if futility or danger resulting from an announced entry are perceived, but it didn't decide whether it was acceptable to damage property while making the entrance.
The case, United States v. Ramirez [91 F.3d 1297 (1998)] (see Newsline Nos. 182, 190 in the Newsline database area on our Web page...directions provided below), stems from the 1994 arrest of Hernan Ramirez. In the search for a fugitive named Alan Laurence Shelby, who had knocked down a deputy and escaped from custody because he was on his way to do federal time for methamphetamine charges, officers arrived at Ramirez's home in Boring (OR).
Guided there by a reliable confidential informant who contacted a special agent with ATF and told him he thought Shelby was hiding at that location, 45 armed officers, including state, county and city SWAT teams, converged on the house, preparing to face Shelby, who had a violent past and had vowed that he "would not do federal time." Unbeknownst to the officers, it was Ramirez and his wife and 3-year-old child who were sleeping inside.
Using a portable loudspeaker, officers announced they had a search warrant. Simultaneously, an officer broke a window in the attached garage and waved a gun through it, hoping to secure the area where the CI said the household guns were stored.
Startled by the breaking glass and considerable clatter outside, Ramirez, who claimed he thought his home was being burglarized and feared for his safety, grabbed a gun and fired it toward the garage ceiling. Officers fired back while yelling, "Police!"
Ramirez, who later claimed that he realized "only at this point...that it was law enforcement officers who had broken into the home," ran into the living room, slid his firearm across the floor and threw himself on the floor in a prone position, "shaking from fright."
20 minutes after the officers first arrived, Ramirez and his wife, with their kid in her arms, were in police custody. Shelby, the man officers were really looking for, was nowhere to be found. However, Ramirez acknowledged that a man who "looked like" Shelby "might" have been there earlier. Ramirez, himself a convicted armed burglar, rapist and suspected drug dealer who used various aliases, was arrested for indicted on federal charges for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Ramirez filed and was granted a motion to suppress the firearms found in his home as evidence. The Oregon District Court ruled that the officers had violated both the Fourth Amendment and U.S.C. Sect. 3109 because there were "insufficient exigent circumstances" to justify their destruction of property in executing the warrant.
In this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, "The Fourth Amendment does not hold officers to a higher standard when a 'no-knock' entry results in the destruction of property." Wilson v. Arkansas [514 U.S. 927, 934, 936] states that a no-knock entry is justified if police have a "reasonable suspicion" that knocking and announcing their presence before entering would "be dangerous or futile, or...inhibit the effective investigation of the crime." "Whether such a reasonable suspicion exists," writes the Supreme Court, "does not depend on whether police must destroy property in order to enter."
Further, the Supreme Court said that officers did not violate U.S. Code Sect. 3109, which states, "[Officers] may break open any...window...to execute a search warrant, if, after notice of [their] authority and purpose, [they are] refused admittance." Ramirez claimed that Sect. 3109 is saying that refusal of entrance is the ONLY circumstance under which an officer executing a warrant may damage property. "By its terms," said the Supreme Court, "Sect. 3109 prohibits nothing, but merely authorizes officers to damage property in certain instances."