Mississippi’s Missing Search Warrants Prevent Scrutiny of No-Knock Raids

0
8

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Public defender Merrill Nordstrom walked into a Mississippi federal courtroom in May 2021 ready to challenge the no-knock search warrant behind her client’s arrest.

It had happened two years earlier, after an informant bought less than a gram of marijuana from Antoine Bryant. Police broke open Bryant’s door with a battering ram, shattering the glass. Three children sleeping inside were startled awake.

Police found no cache of drugs, but they did find a pistol Bryant wasn’t supposed to have.

By the time Nordstrom asked a judge to toss out the evidence against Bryant, a year had passed since the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid in Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor’s death and the tactic that led to it had caused widespread outrage.

It was time, Nordstrom said, for similar scrutiny of how these warrants were used in Greenville, the Mississippi Delta’s largest city.

She had learned that most search warrants issued in Greenville were no-knock warrants, which allow law enforcement to barge into someone’s home unannounced. She suspected that many of those raids violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches.

“When I saw that they had orchestrated a confidential informant to purchase $10 worth of marijuana, and based on that went and asked for a no-knock search warrant — that, to me, was really egregious,” Nordstrom said. “That’s not what the Fourth Amendment is for. That’s not what our government is supposed to do.”

She faced a major obstacle. Though she had the search warrant for Bryant’s home, she couldn’t find records for most other raids in the city. The search warrants and supporting documents weren’t at the courthouse, even though the state Supreme Court’s rules require law enforcement to return warrants to the court.

Instead they were at the Greenville Police Department, hidden from view because law enforcement agencies, unlike the courts, can claim a broad public records exemption over records in their possession.

Greenville isn’t the only place in Mississippi where many search warrant records are inappropriately off-limits to the public. An investigation by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal and ProPublica has found that almost two-thirds of Mississippi’s county-level justice courts prevent access to some or all search warrants and related documents. So do municipal courts in at least five of the state’s 10 largest cities, including Jackson, the capital.

Justice courts handle misdemeanor crimes, small civil cases and, often, search warrants. The judges who preside over these courtrooms are similar to justices of the peace in other states and are not required to have a law degree.

Some of those courts violate state rules by failing to require law enforcement to return search warrants and related documents. Other courts do keep search warrant records but won’t let the public see them, defying well-established jurisprudence about the availability of court records.

The independence and integrity of the judicial branch of government requires openness, said William Waller Jr., a retired chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“You should have transparency,” said Waller, who helped write the rules of criminal procedure that some courts are violating. “After it’s been executed, the search warrant should be returned to a judicial officer and that should be a part of the files and available for public inspection.”

On the Trail of No-Knock Search Warrants in Mississippi

A no-knock search warrant allows police to enter someone’s home unannounced to conduct a search, even if they have to break down the door. Here’s what happens in Mississippi.

First, law enforcement must go before a judge to justify why they want to search the property and why they’re asking for a no-knock warrant.

After searching the property, the police must bring the warrant and a list of what they took back to the judge.

The warrants are supposed to be stored by the court. But that doesn’t always happen.

In some counties, law enforcement keeps the search warrants. That’s against the rules.

Some courts have incomplete records. That’s against the rules, too.

Other clerks claim that search warrants are off-limits to the public. These practices all block access to information about no-knock raids.

(Illustrations by Anuj Shrestha, special to ProPublica)

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the public’s right to view court records, though it hasn’t ruled on the accessibility of search warrants in particular. Although federal appeals courts agree the public generally can view search warrants at some point in the legal process, they disagree on when those records become public. Because of those differing rulings, plus poor record-keeping and orders that seal the documents, it’s often hard to get access to warrants. Similar issues exist in many state courts.

Even against this landscape, legal experts say recordkeeping and access problems in Mississippi’s justice courts are extreme.

“It would be very, very atypical to have a jurisdiction where you never see any warrant materials,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “That’s just not how it works.”

After Taylor’s killing, which occurred as police tried to enter her apartment to search for drugs they believed had been hidden there by a former boyfriend, activists called for bans on no-knock raids. But researchers and academics have little data about how often and why police use no-knock warrants.

Limited access to court records is part of the problem. A recent Washington Post effort to identify how many people have been killed in recent years during the execution of no-knock search warrants was hampered by sealed, missing or otherwise secret records.

“You can’t do justice in a corner,” said retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith, who reviewed applications for search warrants when he sat on the bench in Houston. He’s a vocal advocate for greater transparency in the process. “You have to see what judges are doing. It goes to the legitimacy of our legal system.”

What Happens When Police Burst in

Police raided Antoine Bryant’s home in Greenville, Mississippi, to execute a no-knock search warrant in June 2019. He was charged with possessing a firearm as a convicted felon.

(Rory Doyle for ProPublica)

In Mississippi, no-knock raids have caused fear, injuries and even death.

Two federal lawsuits over people who were shot in no-knock raids have been settled this year; a third suit over injuries caused in a raid is ongoing. Another federal suit involves a dispute about whether sheriff’s deputies entered without knocking. And in 2020, a state appeals court upheld damages awarded over a botched no-knock raid conducted several years before.

“It’s so dangerous for these guys to go in there the way they do,” said Michael Carr, a lawyer who has represented both clients whose homes have been searched and deputies who have been sued over such raids. “I’ve seen them kicking in people’s doors, and you’ve got little kids in there.”

Lawsuits Filed Over No-Knock Raids in Mississippi

Shot 17 Times
Coahoma County sheriff’s deputies shot Maurice Mason at least 17 times after breaking down the door to search the home where he was staying in March 2020. Mason, who survived, was not the target of the search, was unarmed and was never charged with a crime. Mason sued the county, which denied any wrongdoing; it settled the lawsuit this year.

Grabbed a Gun When Police Burst In
In January 2020, Coahoma deputies (the same ones who would later shoot Maurice Mason) burst into Trekevious Hayes’ home and shot him. In a court filing, he said he retrieved a gun for self-defense after the police shot first. Coahoma County Sheriff Charles Jones, however, said that deputies announced themselves and Hayes shot first.

Authorities charged Hayes with aggravated assault for allegedly shooting at the officers. He has not been indicted.

Shot While Holding an Air Gun
In October 2015, Monroe County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Ricky Keeton during a 1 a.m. no-knock raid. In depositions, deputies said he fired a pellet pistol and they shot back; his girlfriend said he thought someone was breaking in.

In September 2022, Monroe County agreed to settle a federal lawsuit over his death for $690,000, though the settlement hasn’t been finalized.

Raided the Wrong House
In April 2015, state narcotics agents raided the wrong house in Vicksburg, forcing Henry and Rita Hunter to the floor at gunpoint — even after local police tried to intervene. A judge awarded the couple $50,000 following a civil trial.

No-knock warrants arose at the onset of the war on drugs under President Richard Nixon. Proponents argued that police had to be able to enter buildings without warning so suspects couldn’t destroy evidence or open fire on officers.

Despite complaints about the violence associated with these warrants, their use grew. The debate eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which considered the issue in three key cases and ruled that no-knock warrants must be the exception, not the rule.

In a key 1997 ruling, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court’s majority that if no-knock searches were broadly sanctioned, “the knock-and-announce element of the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement would be meaningless.”

Those rulings mean police must not only show a judge why they have probable cause to believe that the search will yield evidence of a crime, but they must also explain why the circumstances of the case justify a no-knock warrant.

That’s why Nordstrom grew concerned by the frequency of no-knock raids in Greenville. In a court filing, Nordstrom wrote that she had identified one case in which Municipal Judge Michael Prewitt allegedly signed a no-knock warrant even though police hadn’t asked for one on the application. She wanted to see if the judge frequently approved no-knocks without sufficient evidence.

Nordstrom sent her investigator to Greenville Municipal Court. Although Greenville authorities acknowledged that most search warrants in the city were no-knocks, the municipal court had no records of any searches authorized by Prewitt, the city’s only municipal judge for most of the prior two decades.

Nordstrom and Prewitt sparred in the May 2021 court hearing over whether the no-knock warrant in Bryant’s case was justified. Prewitt took the witness stand and acknowledged saying that he could issue a no-knock search warrant even to look for a sweater, but he denied “rubber-stamping” applications for no-knock warrants.

His explanation for signing so many no-knock warrants? Police conduct a lot of drug investigations in Greenville.

In an email to the Daily Journal and ProPublica, Prewitt said he meant to suggest that a no-knock warrant might be necessary to recover a sweater if it had forensic evidence that could easily be destroyed. (He did not offer that explanation when he testified in court.)

Greenville Police Chief Marcus Turner said his officers don’t execute no-knocks now due to staffing turnover among his investigators, but he plans to reinstate the raids.

Nordstrom couldn’t convince the federal judge overseeing Bryant’s case to throw out the evidence obtained in the search. Bryant ended up pleading guilty, but he has appealed the judge’s ruling on the no-knock warrant.

“I was so appalled by the no-knocks and how prevalent they are in that county,” Nordstrom said. “It would have been nice to figure out if there was a pattern.”

Reasons for Missing Warrants Vary

In any court, the clerk’s office, with its shelves upon shelves of file folders, is the place to go if you’re looking for key records in a criminal proceeding. Arrest warrants. Bail bonds. Judge’s orders. But not, in some of Mississippi’s justice courts, search warrants.

These are important documents. The warrant itself identifies the place police will search. The application for a no-knock warrant says why officers believe they should be allowed to barge into someone’s home without announcing themselves. The property inventory says what police seized during the search. Waller, the retired chief justice, and Matt Steffey, an attorney and law professor, said all that paperwork is supposed to be at the courthouse.

Warrants issued by Greenville’s municipal judge must be returned to the court, according to rules issued by the state Supreme Court. An investigator for a federal public defender didn’t find any there.

(Rory Doyle for ProPublica)

“We don’t keep those,” said Lamar County Justice Court Clerk Sandra Owen.

“Usually the return goes back to the sheriff’s offices,” said Jones County Justice Court Clerk Stacy Walls.

“I hardly ever see search warrants — before, during or after,” said Marion County Justice Court Clerk Wynette Parkman.

But Mississippi’s rules are clear: Law enforcement must bring search warrants back to court after serving them. Virtually all state courts in the country, as well as federal courts, have similar requirements.

“There needs to be a record that isn’t squirreled away in a law enforcement file,” said Steffey, who was involved in writing the rules of criminal procedure.

ProPublica and the Daily Journal surveyed all 82 county justice courts in Mississippi, as well as municipal courts in the state’s 10 largest cities. Although any judge in Mississippi can sign a search warrant, municipal and justice court judges commonly handle them.

More than a third of Mississippi’s justice courts are breaking rules that require them to keep all search warrant records. That includes 15 justice courts that have no search warrants among their records and 16 that have only some.

The reasons for the missing warrants vary because no two justice courts operate exactly the same way. Clerks say they don’t know when judges sign warrants, so they don’t know if police fail to bring a warrant back. In some counties, law enforcement agencies return some warrants but not others, and clerks don’t know why. Some counties have warrants only if charges were filed.

Few justice courts even keep a list of issued search warrants, making it easy for these documents to fall through the cracks.

Check If Your County’s Justice Court Lets the Public Access Search Warrants

!function(){“use strict”;window.addEventListener(“message”,(function(e){if(void 0!==e.data[“datawrapper-height”]){var t=document.querySelectorAll(“iframe”);for(var a in e.data[“datawrapper-height”])for(var r=0;r