New bill tightening requirements for no-knock warrants gains momentum in the Utah Legislature this year

HB124 would standardize ‘best practices’ for requesting and executing no-knock warrants. However, some question how much the bill would actually accomplish.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, working at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. Gwynn, who is also the chief of police in Roy, has sponsored a bill to apply "best practices" to no-knock warrants in Utah.

After failing to move through committee last year, a bill that would place restrictions on controversial no-knock warrants has resurfaced and just passed one of its final hurdles to becoming law in Utah.

Such warrants have been the subject of intense scrutiny since 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in March 2020 after police officers were given approval for a no-knock entry at her Kentucky apartment.

This year, Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, is running the retooled legislation through the session.

HB124 stipulates law enforcement agencies go through specific steps before seeking no-knock warrants.

The legislation requires that no-knock affidavits spell out why suspects cannot be detained or private residence searched in a “less invasive or less confrontational” way. Additionally, it requires that affidavits demonstrate investigative activities have been performed to confirm the correct address or determine that people in or near the building are in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.

Supervisory officers are then supposed to review each affidavit before requesting a no-knock warrant from a judge or magistrate. Using the officer’s affidavit, the supervisory officers must perform an independent assessment of the “totality of the circumstances,” ensure a “reasonable” intelligence effort was made and a threat assessment on the person or building to be searched was completed.

The bill also sets a preference that warrants be served between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and requires that officers wear “readily identifiable markings,” such as a badge or vest, that identify them as law enforcement.

According to Gwynn, who is also the chief of police in Roy, many Utah law enforcement agencies already adhere to these policies, which he refers to as “best practices.” The bill, he said, would primarily work to ensure that everyone is on the same page, statewide.

“I was actually pretty excited to carry this bill,” he said, “not because it’s a police reform bill, which I think it is, but at the end of the day, we’re standardizing best practices. And we’re saying … these are going to be the bare minimum standards you’re going to meet.”

While admitting to not having many conversations with line-level officers, Gwynn said that Utah’s chiefs, sheriffs and the Fraternal Order of Police are all on board. The support from law enforcement stands in contrast with their disapproval of last year’s bill, but the law enforcement community was very much involved with reworking the bill.

The Utah Law Enforcement Legislative Committee had a hand in crafting the new bill, forming a working group that provided insight and feedback on the proposed legislation, said Nate Mutter, assistant chief of investigations for the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

“We think it strikes a good balance [between] privacy rights as well as officer and citizen safety,” he said in a House committee meeting in January.

Last year’s forcible entry and warrant amendments legislation stalled primarily because of a provision stating that no-knock warrants were only to be allowed in circumstances when there was an imminent threat to a person inside or outside of a building.

At the time, then-Rep. Craig Hall said if the language were removed from the bill, he “[didn’t] know that there’s much of a bill left.”

In addition to allowing for no-knock entry in instances when people are in danger, Gwynn’s bill also allows officers to use forcible entry without knocking when there is an “exigent” threat of destruction of evidence, even if serving a knock and announce warrant.

In one of its more substantive provisions, HB124 would prohibit officers from requesting no-knock warrants for misdemeanor investigations.

When asked by The Salt Lake Tribune for the reason behind the provision, Gwynn said, “There is some concern that if no-knock warrants are supposed to be for the worst of the worst, why are we going to be potentially aggravating or exacerbating negative consequences in misdemeanor cases? We shouldn’t be treating misdemeanor cases and felony cases the same.”

However, when asked in committee Monday about potentially eliminating no-knock warrants altogether, Gwynn demurred.

“The consensus is, while we hope [the number of no-knock warrants] is relatively few overall, there’s a belief that no-knock warrants do serve a legitimate purpose for those cases wherein the element of surprise is paramount,” he told the committee. “And we’re talking about violent offenders, large cases.”

In 2020, nearly 40% of warrants issued in Utah were no-knock, according to data from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

When asked about these numbers, Gwynn said he wasn’t sure whether his legislation would significantly lower the number of no-knock warrants since he didn’t know if the statistic counted warrants for misdemeanors and felonies or just the latter. From 2014 to 2020, drugs were the overwhelming cause for warrants in Utah, giving rise to approximately 78% of them, according to the data.

While saying he supported the bill, Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, expressed doubt as to how much the legislation would actually accomplish.

“Maybe last year’s bill, in trying to completely deny [no-knocks] for purposes of evidence retention, was perceived by some as being too far on the end of the spectrum,” he said, “but to completely allow it in all cases for evidence [retention] is the totally opposite end of where that pendulum might swing.”

He said he is not in favor of no-knock warrants being categorically banned; however, he wants to see more limits put in place that would ensure such warrants are only approved when absolutely necessary.

“This is not just risking the lives of people in the homes, it is risking the lives of officers as well,” he said. “So the question to ask is ‘Do we want to risk the lives of police officers to secure evidence?’”

Regardless of doubts, HB124 passed the House unanimously and appears to have the momentum it lacked in 2021.

The bill also received unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee on Monday and will now head to the Senate floor, where Gwynn is optimistic about the bill’s chances to advance.

“Law enforcement is its own worst critic,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We know we’re in the fishbowl, we know the light’s on us, and we don’t like it when our careers and our staff are painted with a broad brush. And so we take every opportunity we can to fix what’s wrong, to continuously train and to improve whenever we can.”