Judicial Rubber-Stamping of Warrants Can Be Deadly

According to a federal indictment unsealed last week, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT and aspiring nurse who was killed during a 2020 drug raid in Louisville, Kentucky, died because a cop lied. According to a 2019 federal indictment, the same is true of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, a middle-aged couple killed during a drug raid in Houston that year.

When police officers invent facts to obtain search warrants, they are committing crimes, violating the Fourth Amendment and instigating potentially lethal confrontations without a legal basis. Although outright lies may be difficult to detect in advance, more rigorous judicial review of police affidavits could have made a crucial difference in both of these cases.

When Louisville Detective Joshua Jaynes sought a warrant to search Taylor’s apartment in March 2020, he claimed he had “verified through a US Postal Inspector” that suspected drug dealer Jamarcus Glover, Taylor’s former boyfriend, had been “receiving packages” at her apartment. After the raid that killed Taylor, Jaynes told investigators that information actually came from a colleague, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, who supposedly told Jaynes “nonchalantly” that Glover “just gets Amazon or mail packages there.”

According to the indictment against Jaynes, both claims were false. Furthermore, Jaynes’ suggestion that the packages might contain drugs or drug money was inconsistent with the reference to Amazon shipments. Glover, who was arrested elsewhere the same night that police killed Taylor, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that “nothing illegal” was delivered to her apartment — just “shoes and clothes” — and that Taylor was not involved in his drug dealing.

Even with the ambiguous reference to “packages,” the evidence implicating Taylor in her ex-boyfriend’s criminal activities was thin. Jaynes reported that he had seen Glover outside Taylor’s apartment and that he had seen Taylor’s car parked in front of a house used by Glover “on different occasions,” although he did not specify when or in what circumstances.

Although Jefferson County Circuit Judge Mary Shaw may not have realized that Jaynes invented a conversation with a postal inspector, it should have been obvious that the evidence against Taylor, based entirely on guilt by association, was much weaker than the evidence against Glover. Yet Shaw approved a warrant for a no-knock, middle-of-the-night search of Taylor’s apartment along with four other warrants for houses linked to Glover, all within 12 minutes.

After the Houston raid that killed Tuttle and Nicholas, it turned out that a veteran narcotics officer, Gerald Goines, had fabricated a heroin sale to falsely implicate them in drug dealing. While Municipal Court Judge Gordon Marcum, who approved the no-knock warrant for the couple’s home, may never have imagined that Goines was making the whole thing up, there were clues that the officer’s affidavit was fishy.

Although Goines claimed he had been investigating drug activity at Tuttle and Nicholas’ home for two weeks, he had not bothered to find out who lived there. Goines said he had “advised” a confidential informant that “narcotics were being sold and stored” at the house, but he cited no evidence of that, notwithstanding his two-week investigation.

Goines claimed another narcotics officer, Steven Bryant, had recognized the “brown powder” that the informant supposedly bought at the house as heroin, a detail that Bryant later contradicted. One wonders what Bryant would have said if Marcum had asked him to verify Goines’ account.

Local prosecutors discovered that Goines, who was employed by the Houston Police Department for 34 years, had been similarly creative in other cases, citing drug purchases that never happened to justify searches and arrests. He also had a history of justifying no-knock warrants by citing firearms that were never recovered — a suspicious pattern that no one noticed until it was too late for Tuttle and Nicholas.

When judges rubber-stamp warrants without asking basic questions or pausing to consider whether police have established probable cause, they forsake their responsibility to protect our constitutional rights. The result is unjustified home invasions that can have deadly consequences.

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Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.