Search Warrants in Washington, DC

A review by the Washington Post of 2,000 search warrants executed in Washington, D.C. between January 2013, and January 2015, found that about 14% were based on situations where someone was arrested on the street for a drug or weapon offense and police later, citing “training and experience,” secured search warrants for a residence without any indication of criminal activity – that is, without any undercover purchase of drugs or police surveillance being conducted at the premises.  Police were then able to seize phones, personal documents, and computers.  In about 60% of those cases, police found small amounts of drugs or drug paraphernalia and weapons.  In twelve of the cases police searched the wrong address.  The searches were conducted overwhelmingly, i.e., in 99% of the cases, at residences of African Americans.

Alec Karakatsanis, with the nonprofit group D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law, was quoted as saying, “They have turned any arrest anywhere in the city into an automatic search of a home, and that simply cannot be … It would work a fundamental change in the balance of power in our society between government agents and individual rights.” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier told the Post that all of the warrants executed were constitutional, and that each warrant request had been reviewed by a police lieutenant, prosecutors, and a judge.  Chief Lanier was quoted as saying, “In the vast majority of those warrants, contraband and evidence was recovered in furtherance of criminal prosecutions, and gave MPD [the Metropolitan Police Department] the ability to bring closure to multiple victims of crimes in our city … During that same time frame, MPD received very few complaints regarding the execution of those warrants.” In 2014, then-D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan stated, “While Plaintiffs treat this success rate with contempt, finding drugs in one-third of similar police searches is strong evidence of probable cause,” and probable cause cannot be reduced to a “precise definition or quantification.” Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said, “ … police are not civil libertarians, and these types of warrants are counter to what the Fourth Amendment is all about … It’s a mass-produced, search-and-recovery operation. It’s an assembly line. It’s not a progressive policy, and it imperils police and people alike.”

One additional case described in the article involved a warrant executed in 2010.  A person was arrested on the street for disorderly conduct, was searched, and police found 18 grams of marijuana on his person.  He gave his grandmother’s address as his own; however, the arrestee had not lived at that address for thirteen years.  Police got a warrant and searched the grandmother’s house; no contraband was found, but the grandmother’s dog was shot 13 times.  A federal judge later determined the shooting of the dog was reasonable force.

Source:  John Sullivan, “Probable cause: pursuing drugs and guns on scant evidence, D.C. police sometimes raid wrong homes –terrifying the innocent,” http://washingtonpost.com, March 5, 2016: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2016/03/05/probable-cause/

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor