Political Insider

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A burned toddler revives a rare 'no-knock' alliance

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It doesn’t matter whether you credit God or Charles Darwin. The looks that babies give us are designed to bring out our most protective instincts.

And so the image of 19-month-old Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh, with his face burned away by a flash-bang police grenade hurled into his playpen, has done more than wring a few hearts.

In little more than a week, the injured toddler has sparked a rare alliance of Georgia’s disparate political factions: rural Republicans and urban blacks, tea partyers and liberal Democrats — all out to rein in the use of “no-knock” search warrants.

The stun grenade that landed on Bou Bou’s pillow was tossed during a 3 a.m. raid into a home in Cornelia, in rural northeast Georgia. Habersham County deputies and members of the Cornelia Police Department said they were surprised by the fact that four children — Bou Bou and his three sisters — were in the house at the time.

We’re told that a confidential informant had purchased drugs at the house the day before, but the raid turned up no drugs or guns. The target of the raid was not there. He was arrested later — and only charged with drug possession, not sales.

The GBI is now investigating whether the North Georgia narcotics officers violated any law when executing a warrant that allowed them to enter the premises, by force, without first announcing themselves. But here’s the thing: In the whole of the Georgia Code, there isn’t a single sentence that governs when, or under what circumstances, no-knock warrants can be issued.

The judges who sign them are guided by case law and their own inclinations.

Back in 2007, a bipartisan team of lawmakers, led by state Sens. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, and Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, tried to write into law the rules for no-knock warrants. The effort was spurred by a 2006 police raid of a southwest Atlanta home that left a 92-year-old woman dead.

The no-knock measure easily passed the Senate but died in the House — opposed by many of the state’s sheriffs and prosecutors.

Seven years later, Bou Bou’s pain is bringing the band back together. “It looks like that issue needs to be revisited,” Mullis, the Republican, said this week.

Fort, the Democrat, is already neck-deep in protests over the Habersham County raid. Neither Fort nor Mullis are out to ban no-knock warrants outright, but they want restrictions spelled out.

“The no-knock warrant is becoming a standard, when it should be an exception. When you couple a no-knock warrant with these military-grade weapons, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Fort said.

Luck may be on their side this time. In political terms, the pivotal difference between 2007 and 2014 is the presence of the tea party — which has provided the Fourth Amendment with a fresh and influential fan base.

One measure: A protest at the Habersham County courthouse scheduled for this Saturday is the work of a coalition of libertarian and tea party activists. But an organizer, James Bell, reports that one group especially helpful in getting the word out about the gathering has been the NAACP in Clayton County, where a pregnant woman was injured by a flash-bang grenade during a 2010 police raid.

There’s one more sign that legislation to bring no-knock warrants under tighter control will be a topic of the 2015 General Assembly. He is state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville.

Tanner, who lives two counties over from Habersham, is no Monday morning quarterback. He says he has been looking into the topic for more than a year.

For 18 years, Tanner was a Dawson County sheriff’s deputy. Much of that time was spent on a drug task force. He’s executed more than 100 search warrants, including “several dozen” of the no-knock variety.

“I understand what it’s like to go through a door and not know what’s on the other side,” he said. ”I do think there are ways to tighten the process down to ensure that it’s done properly and safely — as safe as you possibly can.”

Tanner says he is involved in “treetop-level” discussions with Georgia sheriffs and prosecutors, and he expects to produce a first draft of legislation within two or three months.

The Dawsonville lawmaker is wondering whether police agencies should be required to have written policies on the service of no-knock warrants. And whether supervisors should be required to be on the scene.

”I also think maybe we need to look at the time of day when they’re allowed to be executed,” Tanner said. Warrants allowing no-knock entry into homes during the dark of night could require the highest degree of sworn testimony before a judge signs on.

Again, Tanner insists that his is no knee-jerk reaction to what happened in Habersham County. So what is his motivation? I asked.

“I know it’s becoming more and more of a concern, not just in Georgia but across the country. I think it’s important that law enforcement and people who understand this area step up and take the lead,” he said. “So that we don’t ultimately lose a tool that’s in our toolbox.”

Let me add my own spin: A parade in Bou Bou’s honor is highly likely when the Legislature convenes in Atlanta next January. If it cannot be stopped, perhaps it would be better for Georgia prosecutors and sheriffs to be seen leading it.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.