This article first appeared at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Friday, February 14, 2014:
Another botched drug raid in Texas in December led to the homeowner defending himself, shooting and killing a SWAT team member, and a grand jury declaring he was justified in doing so. It’s usually the homeowner who suffers death, maiming, or jail.
Hank McGee was sleeping in his trailer house near Dallas, Texas, with his pregnant girlfriend early Thursday morning, December 19, when a SWAT team headed up by Deputy Sergeant Adam Sowders broke down his front door in a no-knock drug raid. Thinking he was being invaded by robbers, McGee grabbed a gun and fired, hitting and killing Sowders. On Thursday a Burleson County grand jury called it “justified homicide,” turning aside an attempt to charge McGee with murder.
McGee should consider himself lucky. There are more than 40,000 such no-knock drug raids taking place every year in this country, and many of them result in the victim either being shot to death or serious maimed in the raid. If he survives, he runs an excellent risk of jail time. As it turns out, McGee is being charged with growing some marijuana plants in his home, and legally owning some firearms. It’s the combination that, in Texas at least, turns out to be a felony, and the district attorney is going after him for that. McGee could spend the next two to five years in jail.
There are so many botched drug raids that Cato has created an interactive map (see link below) showing how many have already taken place, if the target later turned out to be innocent or resulted in his death, whether a SWAT team member was killed or injured in the raid, whether an innocent bystander was hurt or killed in the raid, and how many were deemed “unnecessary raids on doctors and sick people.”
For instance, there was a botched no-knock drug raid in Ross County near Chillicothe, Ohio just a few days earlier where Sergeant Brett McKnight (an 11-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, by the way) “negligently” allowed his firearm to go off while outside of another trailer house where suspected drug law violators were living. The bullet entered through an exterior wall and struck Krystal Barrows (mother of three sons) who was sitting on a couch inside, killing her.
There’s the case of octogenarian Kathryn Johnson who was at home in 2006 when a SWAT team enforcing a no-knock drug warrant mistakenly crashed through her front door, thinking it was a drug house. Johnson grabbed a pistol and fired, wounding three officers before they returned fire, killing her.
There’s the ghastly miscarriage of justice in the 2008 case of Tracy Ingle who was asleep when he heard a SWAT team crashing through his front door while simultaneously breaking through his bedroom window. He grabbed his gun in an attempt to defend himself. Said Ingle:
I could see that they weren’t robbers, so I threw my gun down. A second later I heard one of the police officers say, “He’s got a … gun” … and he started shooting.
What happened next is best explained by investigators from the Arkansas Times in their 8-page report of the raid:
He knew he had been shot, Ingle said, and his first instinct was to try to get off the bed — away from the window, at least, where the two officers were now pouring fire into the room. As Ingle tried, he got tangled up in the blankets and his ruined leg folded under him, the shattered bone grating inside. He fell to the floor in agony.
As he fell, the officers outside the window kept shooting, hitting him four more times — arm, calf, hip and chest. The round that hit him in the chest is still there, too close to his heart to be removed.
Days later, Ingle’s brother, Eric, would dig four more bullets out of a space heater that was only a foot from where Ingle’s head lay, and spackle up nine bullet holes in the wall over Tracy’s bed. Some of those rounds had gone completely through and into the bathroom on the other side of the wall, two of them blowing ragged holes through both sides of a plywood shelf.
Finally, the shooting stopped.
“After that,” Ingle said, “all the police rushed in, and were standing over me and calling me Michael. They kept calling me Michael or Mike, and I wouldn’t answer them. One of them asked me why I wouldn’t answer them, and I said, ‘My name’s not Mike.’ I don’t remember much after that except them taking me out of the house to an ambulance.”
In each case, the SWAT teams are following protocols created by the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. McConney which defined “exigent circumstances” that overrules the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. These are circumstances, said the court,
that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of a suspect, or some other consequence [that would] improperly frustrate … legitimate law enforcement efforts.
Much has been written about this case, including discussion of what a reasonable person might actually think, what action was really necessary, how likely destruction of evidence might be in the few moments before a proper search warrant is executed, and whether such proper execution would “improperly frustrate” law enforcement efforts. But part of the blame for botched no-knock raids must fall on the Supremes for opening the door (so to speak) for such infringement of a precious right.
Part of the blame falls rightly on overenthusiastic, over-oxygenated SWAT team members enforcing these warrants with excessive force, when more reasonable approaches might work just as effectively without the nasty consequences. In the Texas case, for example, Dick DeGuerin, McGee’s attorney, commented on the grand jury’s exoneration of his client, saying:
We felt that the grand jury acted fairly and reasonably and had all of the information that it needed to make the decision that it did: that this was a justified shooting.
But we need to say that this is a tragedy.
It need not have happened. [The SWAT team] could have walked up to his house in the daylight and he would have let them in, or they could have stopped him as he left his house to go to the store.
And then there is the War on Drugs itself, where mere possession of a plant decreed by some government to be illegal is considered a felony, with laws to enforce such rules leading to such ghastly miscarriages. McGee’s exoneration was covered by Forbes contributor Jacob Sullum who summarized neatly the conundrum:
[Deputy Sowder’s] death is doubly senseless: because violence is not an appropriate response to cultivation of an arbitrarily proscribed plant and because, even if we take pot prohibition as a given, there is no need to enforce it by breaking down people’s doors while they are sleeping, a tactic that inevitably results in tragedies like this one.
So there’s plenty of blame to go around. Botched raids will continue, and deaths of innocents and SWAT team members will continue to mount, until such time as laws are changed, rulings are voided, and common sense reigns once again.
PoliceOne.com: No murder charge for man who fatally shot Texas deputy
Charlotte Observer: Grand jury won’t indict man who shot Texas deputy
Arkansas Times: Shot in the dark
Cato Institute: Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America
Cato Institute: Interactive map of botched drug raids