The War on Drugs seems to bring out the worst in law enforcement. Wiretap abuse, asset forfeiture, flashbang grenades tossed into toddlers’ cribs, internal corruption… these are all aspects of law enforcement’s drug-related police work.
Radley Balko has uncovered more abuse and Constitutional violations, this time stemming from the Little Rock PD’s anti-drug efforts. The wrongs detailed in Balko’s investigation include false statements on warrant requests, abuse of no-knock warrants, “reliable” confidential informants who are anything but reliable, and a handful of destroyed lives left in its wake.
It opens with the story of Roderick Talley, whose apartment was raided by a Little Rock (AR) SWAT team. The team used explosives to remove his door, sending it flying onto the couch where Talley was sleeping. The raid was predicated on an informant’s supposed controlled buy. But Talley’s own security cameras — which also captured the raid itself — showed the informant didn’t do what police said he did.
The outside camera had recorded two odd incidents. First, a man whom Talley didn’t know approached the apartment while Talley wasn’t home. Looking anxious, the man knocked, waited a few moments and then left. A few days later, the camera picked up a police officer outside the door. The officer looked around, snapped a photo of Talley’s door with his cellphone, and left.
According to the search warrant affidavit, the CI had purchased drugs from Talley, with the swearing officer claiming he had actually witnessed this (nonexistent) purchase take place.
The detective wrote that he and two other detectives then watched as the informant approached Talley’s apartment. Importantly, the detective wrote that the officers “observed the door open” and witnessed the informant have “a conversation with someone inside the apartment.” Immediately after, they met up with the informant at a prearranged location. The informant said he had just purchased $ 100 worth of cocaine from two men in the apartment. One man took his money at the door, then an inside man handed the door man a small bag of cocaine.
If it hadn’t been for his own cameras, it would have been Talley’s word against the Little Rock PD’s. The only drugs found during the no-knock raid was a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. Talley was then kicked out of his apartment by his landlord and billed for the damages caused by the SWAT team.
Talley isn’t alone. Balko details a couple of other questionable raids that can be traced back to the same questionable informant.
Talley says the informant did speak to him, and when he confronted him about his own case, the informant admitted that he never bought cocaine that day. Furthermore, “his girlfriend told me that he’d get paid for each bust, so he’d just take the cops to the places of people he knew or had heard about, knock on the door, and then he’d just make small talk for a few minutes,” Talley says. “Then he’d go tell the cops that he’d bought whatever drug they were looking for.”
That jibes with the accounts of two other people who say they were recently raided because of the informant. Derrick Davis says that on Sept. 2, 2017, a few weeks after the raid on Talley, a strange man knocked on his door. “I’d never seen the guy before,” Davis says. “He just comes up, knocks and walks right in. Then he starts asking weird questions about my apartment, like whether I like living there, and how much the rent is. He stayed for a few minutes, then he thanked me and left. It was weird.”
Two weeks later, an LRPD raid team blew down Davis’s door. “I saw the video of what they did to Mr. Talley. It was exactly what they did to me,” he says. “They used explosives. It blew the door clean off. Then about 10 guys came in, all decked out in SWAT gear.”
What’s most concerning about the LRPD’s tactics is its reliance on “no knock” warrants. These warrants are supposed to be limited to cases where officers can demonstrate a sufficient need to enter a private residence unannounced. There’s a higher bar than regular search warrants and are meant to the rare exception to the rule. For the Little Rock PD, the exception is the rule.
Of the 105 warrants, LRPD officers requested a no-knock raid in 103. Of those 103, Little Rock’s criminal court judges granted the request in at least 101. (The other two search warrants were missing the page that included the judge’s instructions on how the warrant should be served.)
The”neutral magistrate” — the check against government power — was, in these cases, the rubber stamp applied to PD boilerplate. Only eight warrant requests contained any specific details about the sought suspect. The other 90+ warrant requests were copy-pasted assertions about drug dealers and danger. As Balko points out, this isn’t just lazy police work (and lazy adjudicating), it’s actually illegal.
Some police agencies adapted to the Wilson ruling [on no-knock warrants] by simply deciding that all drug cases involve violent suspects and easily destroyable evidence. The Supreme Court rejected this approach two years later in the 1997 case Richards v. Wisconsin. The court ruled that to obtain a no-knock warrant, law enforcement officers must demonstrate specific exigent circumstances for each suspect for whom they’re trying to obtain a no-knock warrant. They can’t simply state that an entire class of crimes, such as drug crimes, presents de facto exigent circumstances.
The Little Rock PD has been engaged in unconstitutional policing for who knows how many years. It just took a set of personal security cameras to catch them in the act. The resulting paper trail has exposed an assembly line for illegal SWAT raids and it’s unlikely this Arkansas law enforcement agency is the only one in the nation using the War on Drugs as an excuse for violent behavior and rights violations.
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