A mural honoring Breonna Taylor in Milwaukee, on Locust Street. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) has introduced a new bill to prevent the use of no-knock search warrants by Wisconsin law enforcement. The bill was named “Breonna’s Law” after Louisville, Kentucky EMT Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old who was killed during such a raid in March 2020.
“It is most appropriate for us to begin Black History Month 2021 by introducing ‘Breonna’s Law,’” Myers said in a press statement. “Breonna Taylor’s life was taken while she was in the comfort of her own home, through the use of a no-knock warrant. While Taylor was not the subject of the warrant, her life was mercilessly ended through no fault of her own. It is because of this that we call on Wisconsin legislators to end the use of no-knock warrants.”
Wisconsin became the first state to authorize no-knock search warrants in 1997. Since their introduction, no-knock raids have created controversy around police transparency and use of force.
“No-knock warrants are harmful to civilians and law enforcement officers alike,” said Myers. “Milwaukee police officer Matthew Rittner was killed in the line of duty while his tactical unit executed a no-knock warrant in February 2019. Because of a no-knock search warrant, a wife lost her husband, Milwaukee lost a police officer and a child lost its father.”
These searches are being reconsidered at the federal and state levels. In Congress last session, Senate Republicans wanted to track their use, while a Democratic House bill, endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus would have banned them on a federal level in drug cases and withhold federal policing grants to states that permit them in drug cases.
In 2020, a package of Juneteenth bills on police reform was forwarded by Gov. Tony Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the the Legislative Black Caucus. It included a similar bill that “prohibits no-knock search warrants issued under state law by requiring a law enforcement officer who is executing a search warrant to identify himself or herself as a law enforcement officer and announce the authority and purpose of the entry, before entering the premises.”
The Legislature did not take any action on these bills, instead forming a study committee that continues to meet but has not come out with its recommendations.
Myers’ new bill, as described in her co-sponsorship memo accompanying it, “requires that a law enforcement officer executing a search warrant must, before entering the premises, identify himself or herself as a law enforcement officer and announce the authority and purpose of the entry. Under the bill, a law enforcement officer may execute a search warrant only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. unless a judge authorizes the execution of the search warrant at another time for good cause.”
Given the increased focus on police reform — and no-knock search warrants in particular — the Wisconsin Legislative Council put out an Information Memorandum on the practice in Sept. 2020, reviewing its complicated relationship with the Fourth Amendment and case law. As a result, the no-knock search warrant, a product of the War on Drugs, is being reconsidered. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving citizens the right to be protected against unlawful search and seizure is replicated in the Wisconsin Constitution.
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“Knock-and-announce requirements before police forcibly enter a person’s home — called the ‘announcement rule’ in Wisconsin — date back centuries to British common law, but exceptions to the rule have been carved out, including the no-knock search warrant,” the memo states. Further, it notes, a 1995 case determined knock-and-announce was not a rigid, blanket rule, so no-knock searches are allowed as an exception that takes into account “countervailing law enforcement interests.”
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association Executive Director Jim Palmer has been quoted by multiple media outlets, as being open to reconsideration of no-knock warrants by police and by lawmakers. He told NBC-15 he doubts his group would fight for the warrants, as they are not used frequently in Wisconsin and can be dangerous for both police officers and residents.
Body camera use by law enforcement has made the public increasingly aware of no-knock search warrants, as more people are able to see footage of the technique in action.
The bill’s namesake, Taylor, was killed as law enforcement carried out a series of raids across the Louisville area. Police claimed they announced themselves when the raid began. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, however, said officers did not do so, and he thought someone was breaking into their home as they slept. After a shot was fired by the boyfriend, wounding one officer, other officers fired numerous shots into the apartment, killing Taylor.
One of the detectives involved, Brett Hankison, was fired in June for “wantonly and blindly” firing his weapon, according to his termination letter. Taylor’s death brought to light the use of such raids, and “place-based” policing strategies that targeted areas being gentrified by the city.
“As the state that created no-knock warrants, Wisconsin has the responsibility to be the state to end their use,” Myers said. “When you know better, you must do better, and this is a step in the right direction.”
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