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Fed. Trial Over Fatal Pa. No-Knock Police Search to Get Underway

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 beyond.

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 wrong homes.

"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 undertaken.

"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.

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 knock.

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