Mississippi’s Missing Search Warrants Prevent Scrutiny of No-Knock Raids
Published 1:25 pm Tuesday, October 4, 2022
by Caleb Bedillion, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
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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.”
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
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.”
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.
“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.
Some court officials said they didn’t even know they were supposed to keep the warrants. But even before the Mississippi Supreme Court wrote statewide rules for criminal procedure in 2017, it recognized a duty to return search warrants and related documents to the court. However, those rules don’t offer any guidance about how the process should work.
Prewitt said in an email to the Daily Journal and ProPublica that he personally keeps copies of all search warrants that are returned to him. Priscilla Bush, the municipal court clerk in Greenville, said she was unaware Prewitt has the warrants.
Prewitt said he believes he is following the rules by keeping the warrants, and if not, maybe the state Supreme Court should rewrite the rules. At a conference of municipal court clerks in September, a staffer of the Judicial College, which trains judges and court clerks, said clerks, not judges, need to store the warrants.
Keeping Public Records Private
Even some courts that do have search warrants on hand refused to let the Daily Journal and ProPublica see them.
“I cannot release any public information about search warrants,” said Kemper County Justice Court Clerk Lynn Puckett. “They are not public records and thank you for your call and you have a great day.” With that, she hung up the phone.
Several courts go even further, claiming that they are covered by an exception in the state public records law that allows law enforcement agencies to withhold investigative records in their possession. Leonard Van Slyke, Mississippi’s preeminent attorney on public records, said this exception doesn’t apply to courts.
“Courts are not any kind of a law enforcement agency,” he said.
In asserting that warrants shouldn’t be available to the public, Alcorn County’s attorney, Bill Davis, argued that the law couldn’t possibly intend to have different rules for the justice court and the sheriff’s department, which in his county sit across from one another in the same building.
Though he conceded there’s some ambiguity in the law, he wrote, “It cannot have been the intent of the Legislature to exempt records on the left side of the hall, but make open for public inspection the identical records on the right side of the hall.”
Waller, the retired Mississippi chief justice, disagreed. It is “strictly and totally a violation of the separation of powers” for courts to use that law to shield their records, he said.
“It’s issued by the court; that makes it something different,” said Waller of search warrants. “Once it’s executed, it’s in court. It absolutely should be public record.”
Several clerks contacted by the news organizations said that some of the records might be public but demanded payment, sometimes hundreds of dollars, in order to sort the purportedly confidential records from the rest.
None of the courts cited orders that sealed the documents as a reason for denying access. That’s how judges normally place a particular record off-limits.
Bob Evans, a Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives and an attorney with over 30 years of public defender experience, said these recordkeeping failures and secrecy claims illustrate a fundamental problem: Familiarity among clerks, judges and law enforcement can erode the independence between the judiciary and law enforcement.
“Sometimes things get a little bit skewed,” Evans said. “There’s just so much trust between the justice court administration and law enforcement.”
State Supreme Court Has Final Say
As outrage grew over Taylor’s death in Louisville, journalists started looking into why police had raided her apartment.
Increased scrutiny raised further questions. Police had claimed officers announced themselves, but reporters found that the judge had authorized a no-knock search. On the application for the warrant, officers claimed a postal inspector had confirmed that Taylor’s former boyfriend had packages delivered to her apartment. That wasn’t true.
In August, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against four current and former Louisville police officers for making false statements on the warrant application. One of them, Kelly Goodlett, has pleaded guilty.
“When your home is searched, when you’re lying in bed at night and your front door is busted open — this is one of the most intrusive things that the government can do,” said Texas A&M School of Law professor Hannah Bloch-Wehba, who studies government secrecy. “People want to know whether police and judges are acting consistent with our values and our expectations, or are they going astray?”
Despite the outcry over Taylor’s death, Bloch-Wehba said, recordkeeping at most courthouses doesn’t meet escalating demands of accountability.
Some of the most egregious failures in Mississippi’s justice courts could be fixed by the state Supreme Court, which has the final authority over how courts work in the state. The court periodically considers updates to the rules of criminal procedure, but no one has asked it to update its rules on search warrants.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph and Justice Jim Kitchens, the presiding member of its rules committee, declined interview requests. Through a spokesperson, Kitchens said he couldn’t discuss the matter because a case about rule violations could come before the court.
Court rules in neighboring Alabama and Arkansas don’t have any ambiguity about who’s supposed to store search warrants. They say judges should receive the search warrant documents after the execution of the search and should turn them over to the court clerk for filing.
In the absence of a top-down directive, justice and municipal courts could take action on their own. The state Judicial College advised justice court judges on how they could change their procedures after the Daily Journal and ProPublica started contacting clerks across the state.
Monroe County Justice Court Clerk Tina Morrow and the judges there followed that advice. Judges now alert Morrow after they sign a search warrant. They keep an unofficial docket of issued warrants, which allows them to flag any warrants that haven’t been returned.
“You’ve got to change with the times,” Morrow said. “You can’t just keep doing what you’ve been doing since the 1980s.”
The director of the Judicial College declined an interview request.
Other clerks, however, want additional guidance written into the rules. “Something needs to be revised so everyone can be on the correct page,” said Sunflower County Justice Court Clerk Patricia Strong. “I’m willing to follow the rules.”
Search Warrant Sheds Light on Her Father’s Killing
Robbie Geiger learned the value of access to search warrants after Monroe County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed her father, Ricky Keeton, during a no-knock raid in 2015.
Two days after his death, Geiger and her relatives demanded a copy of the search warrant. Not yet, Sheriff Cecil Cantrell told Geiger, even though his deputies should have left a copy of the warrant at her father’s home at the time of the raid.
“At the proper time, we’ll give you copies of everything we have,” Cantrell said, according to an audio recording made by one of Geiger’s relatives.
The proper time never arrived.
“They wouldn’t give me a warrant or a return, and they wouldn’t talk to me,” Geiger said. “I kind of had an idea then that something was going on, and it wasn’t right.”
Cantrell, who is no longer sheriff of Monroe County, did not respond to interview requests. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation compiled a report about the raid, which was presented to a grand jury to consider charges against the officers involved. The grand jury declined to indict any of the deputies.
Five months after her father’s death, Geiger still knew little about the circumstances that had led to the raid.
Then she learned the search warrant should be on file at the courthouse. At the Monroe County Justice Court, Morrow provided Geiger with her father’s case file.
What she saw in the documents was startling. The narcotics investigator who obtained the search warrant offered no explanation as to why he needed a no-knock warrant.
A sheriff’s investigator had assured Geiger and her family that deputies had found methamphetamine and marijuana in Keeton’s home, but the inventory of seized property listed no drugs.
Deputies took security cameras that may have contained images of the raid, keeping potentially valuable evidence out of the hands of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which was investigating Keeton’s death. Some images may have been deleted, an officer with the agency later testified.
Those details were used to support key allegations in a lawsuit Geiger and two of her sisters filed in 2016 against Monroe County and a sheriff’s deputy over her father’s death. Last week, the county agreed to pay $690,000 to settle the lawsuit.
“If I hadn’t looked or investigated,” Geiger said, “I would more than likely to this day not have the search warrant.”