Police searches disputed

Some attorneys say the Columbia police are violating civil rights during narcotics investigations.
Sunday, February 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:04 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Columbia police don’t always need a warrant to enter someone’s home. Sometimes, all they need to do is knock.

Police call this tactic a “knock-and-talk” investigation, and officers use it to make contact with people they believe are involved in illegal drug activity. According to reports from the narcotics unit, the number of these investigations conducted between 2002 and 2003 doubled from 11 to 22.

Knock-and-talks typically begin with officers knocking on the door of a residence unannounced. The idea is to persuade the occupants to grant permission for them to enter and search for any illegal drugs or paraphernalia. If the occupants consent, police will enter and interview them. If not, then they will try to see if any drugs or drug paraphernalia are in plain view from their vantage point. If they are, they can make a warrantless entry.

Defense attorney says police are deceptive

Criminal defense attorneys Kevin O’Brien and Dan Viets are concerned with the implications this routine has for citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.

“There’s an element of deception in it. It constitutes an erosion on people’s rights,” O’Brien said. He said officers try to hide their reasons for conducting a knock-and-talk by engaging in normal, friendly conversation with people.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses … shall not be violated.” Although knock-and-talk is “technically not a violation” of those rights, according to O’Brien, the police are “giving people a false sense of security.” He said police often “prey on people who are kind of unsuspecting” and do not inform people of their intent to search when they arrive.

Capt. Sam Hargadine of the Columbia Police Department said that since he started working in the investigations unit two years ago, the department has not received any complaints from citizens regarding knock-and-talks.

Viets said the police have not received complaints because people do not expect officers to respond. He estimated that he represented a dozen defendants last year who were targets of knock-and-talks. Most, if not all, argued in court that they never gave consent for police to enter their homes, he said.

These investigations are usually initiated by citizen complaints or CrimeStoppers reports of a specific residence or occupant who might be involved in drug activity. Capt. Mike Martin, the department’s investigative commander, said officers are required to respond to all complaints.

Knock-and-talks are less time consuming

Martin said the police force is trying to take a more pro-active role in the community by using knock-and-talks. It allows officers to quickly assess the severity of a situation and then move on to address other citizen complaints, he said. He described the routine as a “hey, how are you doing” form of contact with residents.

Martin said that officers generally find paraphernalia in plain view during such investigations. After the first sighting of drug evidence, he said, officers will secure the premises, or lock it up, so no one may enter or exit. Then, they will apply for a search warrant. Within hours, usually, a judge will approve the application, and the warrant will be served at the residence. Depending on the type of narcotic found, the amount and the criminal history of the occupant being investigated, said Martin, officers can take other actions against drug offenders.

For example, felony amounts of drugs will result in on-sight arrests. In Missouri, more than 35 grams of marijuana constitutes a felony, and any amount of cocaine is a felony. Martin said someone who is found to have drugs in his or her home and has a criminal history of drug use would be arrested.

“They should have learned their lesson the first time,” he said.

Viets said it is common for police to walk through residences, essentially conducting a search, “in the pretext of securing the premises.” Officers do make a “walk-through” of residences to make sure all people have evacuated the premises before they search. But Viets said many times the walk-throughs turn into searches before a warrant is served. “No one should ever open his door to the police,” Viets said. The best way to protect one’s rights against warrantless searches is to simply refuse permission for police to enter one’s home, he said.

Martin said all knock-and-talk investigations that uncover drug evidence are put into formal reports, but those that do not are not necessarily reported. Martin requires all narcotic and investigative officers to report the details of these investigations to him. But he could not confirm that the number of knock-and-talks reported in the 2002-03 narcotic unit reports were the total number conducted by narcotics officers in those years.

Investigations in criminal activity can be time-consuming,” said Martin. “I think citizens want us to use our time appropriately.” He said this method consolidates officers’ time during investigations.

Martin said that officers are trained for knock-and-talks with guidelines based on the Fourth Amendment. He said those guidelines, which are not explicitly written out, are drawn from recent court rulings based on drug cases.

Police follow the law

“We go by what the Constitution says,” Martin said, adding that this way, officers do not violate citizens’ rights.

According to a 2003 Missouri Uniform Crime Report, 991 people were arrested on suspicion of drug possession in Boone County last year, and 113 people were arrested on suspicion of selling or manufacturing drugs.

State v. Robinson, a Missouri case, set the precedent for how drug evidence found during knock-and-talk investigations can be used in court. The Court ruled that statements made to officers by “confidential informants,” or cooperative citizens, cannot be used as evidence; only hard evidence found on someone’s person or in someone’s home can be used to connect him or her to a crime.

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