A scene from a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas in May, 2020.(Photo by Michael Lyle)
Prompted by the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot and killed in Kentucky last March when law enforcement carried out a no-knock warrant, Nevada lawmakers are debating legislation to restrict, but not ban, the practice within the state.
The proposal was initially welcomed by criminal justice activists, civil rights groups and law enforcement alike, but an amendment discussed during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday to limit evidence secured during unauthorized raids could jeopardize support from law enforcement.
Further complicating matters, advocacy groups and those impacted by police brutality expecting to testify on Senate Bill 50 were outraged after the committee limited testimony to 10 minutes for each side.
“I think the limitations on time are completely on purpose,” said Holly Welborn, the policy director for the ACLU of Nevada. “I think the Legislature, given the obstacles they have, they are defaulting to a system that is excluding the public.”
No-knock warrants allow officers to enter someone’s residence without prior notification.
Attorney General Aaron Ford, who presented the bill Wednesday, said the legislation wouldn’t outright ban the practice but would more closely define the limits of when police could justifiably use it.
“The state of Nevada law enforcement significantly limits the use of no-knock warrants except in the most urgent circumstances,” Ford said. “Nevada’s police have done a good job of policing themselves on the use of no-knock warrants. However, the restraint we have seen exercised here is the result of internal policy, not law. SB 50 seeks to enshrine these policies into law by providing no-knock warrants can only be issued in limited circumstances.”
The bill would prohibit no-knock warrants for misdemeanors, property crimes or simple drug possession.
Law enforcement seeking to secure a no-knock warrant for other situations would have to show a risk to public safety, explain why knocking and announcing isn’t an option, and certify a no-knock warrant is the last and only resort.
Officers carrying out no-knock warrants would also have to certify they were properly trained to exercise such a raid.
The most contentious part of the legislation, a proposed amendment from the ACLU of Nevada, the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice and public defenders, could exclude evidence gathered if law enforcement doesn’t follow the guidelines for securing and executing a no-knock warrant.
The legislation was supported by the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association and the Nevada District Attorneys Association prior to the introduction of the amendment. During testimony, both agencies testified as neutral until they could obtain clarification around the amendment.
Committee Chair Melanie Scheible and Majority Speaker Nicole Cannizzaro, who both work for the Clark County District Attorney’s office, raised questions about the practicality of some of the language in the amendment.
Groups including the ACLU and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada testified in support.
Welborn said the ACLU would prefer the state ban the practice, but would support the bill with the amended language.
“We appreciate (the Attorney General’s) efforts to work with us because we’re not always the first approached on these matters when we’re the organization connected to the people that laws like this are meant to protect,” Welborn said. “So often, we have lawmakers who present bills that are meant to protect families who are killed by police violence or have loved ones killed by police violence and they are the last people talked to.”
There wasn’t any opposition to the bill during the hearing.
A few calling to testify as neutral admitted they actually supported the bill but were frustrated by the strict 10-minute time limit on comments, and were not provided sufficient opportunity to describe interactions with law enforcement that prompted their support of the policy.
They were cut off mid-sentence.
In the limited time they were allowed, supporters stressed the importance of lawmakers understanding who Breonna Taylor was as well as the history of no-knock warrants.
“The use of no-knock warrants began in the 1980s as part of the failed war on drugs and police militarization,” said Christine Saunders, the policy director for PLAN. “Countless stories like Breonna Taylor, who was unjustly murdered as the result of unnecessary no-knock warrants and systemic racism, exist across the nation.”
Welborn, who was prohibited from providing full testimony due to the committee’s severe time constraints, submitted written testimony highlighting the Taylor case.
“Breonna Taylor’s family will never receive the justice they deserve. A grand jury indicted the officer responsible for the shots accidentally fired in the neighboring apartment, but not for the shots that killed her. The nation and our state have a long way to go to correct inequities throughout the entire criminal legal system. With the amendment, SB50 is an incremental step toward preventing future injustices,” Welborn said in written testimony.
Taylor’s tragic death was not lost on Ford, who referenced her several times during his presentation.
He also cited a 2017 New York Times investigation of no-knock warrants from 2010 to 2016, which found 81 people and 13 law enforcement officers died during raids, as further evidence to curb the practice.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of no-knock entry, their decision is “not the sum total of the analysis,” Ford said.
“We know that in certain circumstances, no knock warrants can be problematic,” he said. “The purpose of a no-knock warrant is to secure the person, premises and evidence before the subject is able to respond. From the perspective of the subject, he or she only knows that armed persons have violently entered their premises. In those immediate moments, he or she does not know their intent. An armed subject may reasonably believe the officers serving the warrant are home invaders and respond accordingly.”
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