DC Police Raid Policy Faces Criticism

The Metropolitan Police Department’s policy allowed officers to obtain search warrants for raids conducted between 2013 and 2015 based solely on officers’ training and experience, according to a study by The Washington Post and American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop published March 5.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches,” which is generally interpreted to mean that police and government agents may only obtain a warrant from a judge after demonstrating probable cause to search a location for a specific item. However, in the warrants, MPD officers only cited their general “training and experience” investigating the drug trade as grounds for raids, without providing physical evidence or observation of criminal activity at a particular residence.

The report reviewed 2,000 warrants issued between January 2013 and January 2015 and found that in 284 cases, officers were able to search a residence after arresting the presumed owner for possession of drugs or guns without any evidence to support the raid besides their training and experience.

In 115 of the 284 cases, corresponding to around 40 percent, officers found nothing at the residences they raided. The remaining 60 percent of raids uncovered illegal items including weapons and drug paraphernalia. The warrants investigated in the report extended police jurisdiction in cases involving drugs and guns, allowing for the seizure of phones, computers and personal records.

Katherine Hubbard, a litigation fellow at Equal Justice Under Law – a D.C.-based non-profit civil rights organization that has filed lawsuits challenging the training and experience justification for obtaining warrants – said officers did not take all the necessary steps to acquire a warrant.

The Metropolitan Police Department’s policy allowed officers to obtain search warrants for raids conducted between 2013 and 2015 based solely on officers’ training and experience, according to a study by The Washington Post and American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop published March 5.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches,” which is generally interpreted to mean that police and government agents may only obtain a warrant from a judge after demonstrating probable cause to search a location for a specific item. However, in the warrants, MPD officers only cited their general “training and experience” investigating the drug trade as grounds for raids, without providing physical evidence or observation of criminal activity at a particular residence.

The report reviewed 2,000 warrants issued between January 2013 and January 2015 and found that in 284 cases, officers were able to search a residence after arresting the presumed owner for possession of drugs or guns without any evidence to support the raid besides their training and experience.According to Hubbard, instead of simply invoking their training and experience, officers should first conduct an investigation that uncovers reasonable evidence.

“It’s our position that that practice is illegal,” Hubbard said. “The Fourth Amendment requires that in order to search someone’s home you need probable cause. There’s a fairly high standard, it’s saying that you need evidence that shows a probability that the things you’re seeking are likely to be found.”

MPD has defended the practice, stating that each search warrant goes through a rigorous review process by prosecutors and a judge to ensure probable cause and constitutionality.

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said the warrants were constitutional and helped diminish criminal activity that may not otherwise have been discovered.

“In the vast majority of those warrants, contraband and evidence was recovered in furtherance of criminal prosecutions, and gave MPD the ability to bring closure to multiple victims of crimes in our city,” Lanier wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “During that same time frame, MPD received very few complaints regarding the execution of those warrants.”

According to the report, almost 99 percent of the 276 raids in which a suspect’s race was stated occurred in the homes of African Americans. Hubbard pointed to this racial and socio-economic component as indicative of a larger pattern in police practices.

“I don’t think anyone could imagine these searches happening in the Northwest with police conducting violent raids of people’s homes based on very little evidence,” Hubbard said. “These searches are targeting black families and families who don’t have the resources to put up a big fight against this tactic.”

However, Lanier stated that the MPD does not target any particular community, stressing the department’s dedication to fair policing.

“As with any interaction between the police and a resident or visitor in D.C., if someone is not satisfied with the police service they have received or the actions of one of our members, I encourage them to immediately contact the MPD and speak with a supervisor or the Office of Police Complaints regarding the incident so the matter can be investigated,” Lanier wrote in her statement to The Hoya. “We remain committed to unbiased constitutional policing.”

Institute of Criminal Law and Procedure Co-Director at Georgetown University Law Center William McDonald said it is important to take into account the historical context of obtaining warrants based on training and experience when determining the constitutionality of searches.

McDonald cited the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, in which the Supreme Court ruled that, if a police officer has reasonable suspicion based on experience that a suspect has or will commit a crime, the officer has the authority to stop and frisk a citizen without probable cause to arrest.

“There was no reasonable standard to make you think a crime had been committed,” McDonald said. “So, the court said, it was an experienced police officer, he observed this pattern of behavior and that gave him reasonable suspicion to go up and stop the man.”

However, McDonald stated that even with experience, officers still must have reasonable suspicion, and expressed doubt that this was the case in some of the raids reviewed.

“It’s up then to the courts to decide whether or not to let them do that or to put limits on the expansion of those powers,” McDonald said. “The powers they’ve managed to create for themselves using that logic strike me as pretty broad.”

Hubbard noted that the seven lawsuits Equal Justice Under Law has filed to challenge police officers’ use of their training and experience have been moving slowly through the courts. D.C. has filed motions to dismiss the cases and for six of the seven, judges’ decisions on whether or not to do so are still forthcoming.

“We’re waiting for rulings on the motions to dismiss,” Hubbard said. “Once we get those we’ll move into the discovery phase where we’ll get more information about these practices.”

McDonald said that by continuing to stretch the limits regarding MPD raids, police officers lose legitimacy and authority in the neighborhoods where searches are taking place. According to McDonald, the police should take into account how its mistakes, such as raiding the wrong house, will be viewed by the public at large.

“That’s the fear behind letting police practice a policy that’s going to annoy the hell out of communities that are already disadvantaged and could explode,” McDonald said. “That’s how I see this, that what needs to be done with regard to this particular policy is rethinking those policies and recognizing what’s in the balance.”

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