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November 27, 2006
The Informant Retreats

Five days ago, I wrote about the no-knock warrant that resulted in the death of a 92-year-old woman and the wounding of three officers in a drug raid gone bad. I questioned the facts as the police laid them out, when they claimed that they had announced themselves and waited for a response, but that the woman had shot the three officers as they approached the house. Now we hear today that the informant on whose information the warrant was issued has changed his story:

The confidential informant on whose word Atlanta police raided the house of an 88-year-old woman is now saying he never purchased drugs from her house and was told by police to lie and say he did.

Chief Richard Pennington, in a press conference Monday evening, said his department learned two days ago that the informant — who has been used reliably in the past by the narcotics unit -- denied providing information to officers about a drug deal at 933 Neal Street in northwest Atlanta.

"The informant said he had no knowledge of going into that house and purchasing drugs," Pennington said. "We don't know if he's telling the truth."

The search warrant used by Atlanta police to raid the house says that a confidential informant had bought crack cocaine at the residence, using $50 in city funds, several hours before the raid.

Let's review why "no-knock" warrants exist. They get issued most regularly for two reasons: to pre-empt any violent reaction to the police officers and to keep suspects from flushing evidence down the toilets and sinks inside the domicile. Only the first reason has any validity for overwhelming force being employed by the police, as the destruction of evidence does not put any lives in danger. As this raid shows, a sudden invasion of a private home can have deadly consequences for all when the homeowner has guns with which to defend herself -- a rational expectation in a neighborhood infested with violent drug dealers.

These warrants should not get banned, but judges should only issue them when demonstrable risk of violence can be established. Strictly speaking, the police have no right to enter anyone's home without their permission, and the legal system should resist any kind of forced entry such as we saw in Atlanta except under the most exceptional circumstances. That's just common sense. It's also common sense to find out who lives in a house before charging through the door, a task that all indications show the police failed to attempt. She lived there for seventeen years, after all. People would have known her.

And what major crime did the Atlanta police believe was committed at Johnston's house? The purchase of $50 worth of crack. It's a legitimate crime under the laws at present, but it hardly warranted a smash-down entry by the police. This wasn't a case of national security, or the lair of a serial killer; it was a house in a bad neighborhood that may or may not have been fingered by an informant as a retail location for narcotics.

On top of all this, it now looks like the police may have lied about their information, or the informant lied and they didn't do any homework to verify his story. If the police lied, then they need to be arrested and charged with the woman's death; if the informant lied, he needs to face similar charges. The FBI, which has opened its own investigation, might find that the police violated Johnston's civil rights in either case.

One fact remains: a ninety-two year old woman got shot to death in her own home by the police, protecting herself against what she believed were armed intruders into her home. There really are no excuses possible for that fact.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 27, 2006 9:20 PM

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