New bill seeks to rein in Utah no-knock warrants like the one used in Breonna Taylor case

The bill would restrict to instances where there is an ‘imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death.’

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Police officers in Utah submit thousands of search warrants a year to judges, who are tasked with reviewing the paperwork and determining whether there is a probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. A Utah lawmaker is currently running a bill to rein in the use of no-knock warrants in the state.

A new bill under consideration in the Utah Legislature seeks to rein in the use of controversial “no-knock” warrants that allow police to burst into someone’s home without warning in order to make an arrest or search for evidence of crimes.

The tactic has received nationwide scrutiny in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman who was shot and killed after police forcibly entered her apartment using a no-knock warrant last spring. The Louisville Metro Council has since abolished their use, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law a statewide ban on the warrants last month.

The proposal from Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, wouldn’t go so far as to eliminate no-knock warrants, which are typically used for drug crimes — but it would restrict them to instances when there is an “existing, imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to a person inside the building.”

In other circumstances, Hall’s bill would require police to knock loudly at least three times, identify themselves as officers, demand admission to the building and then wait at least 30 seconds before they could forcibly enter. Under Utah law, officers are already required to identify themselves as law enforcement and to explain the reason why they need admission as part of these “knock-and-announce” warrants.

In addition to creating new provisions once police are at the door, HB245 would also create an extra layer of scrutiny before police could seek a warrant. The bill would mandate that a supervisory official review a search warrant affidavit, perform a “risk assessment” of the circumstances, ensure “reasonable intelligence-gathering efforts have been made” and then determine whether it’s time for a warrant or if the officer should consider gathering more information.

Police would also be asked to include new information in affidavits under the bill. If approved, the proposal would require officers to describe why they couldn’t detain a suspect or search a residence “using less invasive or confrontational methods” and to show they have identified the correct building and will minimize any harm to “innocent third parties.”

Finally, the bill would allow forcible-entry warrants to be served only during daytime hours, “unless the affidavit states sufficient grounds to believe a search is necessary during nighttime hours.”

Police typically use no-knock warrants when they believe announcing themselves as law enforcement could lead to danger or that a suspect could quickly destroy evidence. But critics say bursting into someone’s home unannounced can cause confusion about who is breaking in, which has led to deadly shootouts in Utah and elsewhere.

In response to those concerns, lawmakers have made several changes to no-knock warrants over the years, including raising the standard for suspicion and the severity of the crime being investigated in order to justify use of the tactic.

Some of those amendments came after six members of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force were shot — and one of them was killed — while serving a “knock-and-announce” search warrant in Ogden in 2012. Later that same year, narcotics detectives in Salt Lake City used a battering ram to knock down a door and execute a search warrant on the wrong home, frightening the 76-year-old woman who lived next door to the intended target.

Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, said those and other examples show Utah is “not immune to our own warrant issues.” But he thinks Taylor’s death has showed a need for additional conversations about when it’s appropriate to use no-knock and knock-and-announce warrants and is supportive of Hall’s bill.

“Really, the question is should we be risking people’s lives over drugs ... or should we be reserving these high-risk warrants for instances where there’s already a threat to human life that might then justify risking our officers and sending them into these volatile situations,” he said in an interview.

Ian Adams, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the organization did not yet have a position on the bill, the text of which was released Tuesday.

“I’ve seen bills before on this in previous years that were very problematic and that just weren’t ever able to really build consensus,” he said. “But we’ll see.”

A spokesman for the Utah Sheriffs’ Association could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Hall, the bill’s sponsor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.