Pubdate: Fri, 22 Sep 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Sharon Dolovich
Note: Sharon Dolovich Is an Acting Professor at UCLA School of Law


Alberto Sepulveda is no Elian Gonzalez. When 11-year-old Sepulveda was shot 
and killed last week by a SWAT team member during an early morning drug 
raid on his parents' Modesto home, the story barely made the papers. Yet, 
as did the Immigration and Naturalization Service raid on the Gonzalez home 
in Miami in May, the killing of Alberto Sepulveda highlights a troubling 
trend in law enforcement: stealth raids on the homes of sleeping citizens 
by heavily armed government agents.

Such raids are the hallmark of police states, not free societies, but as a 
growing number of Americans can attest, the experiences of these two boys 
are by no means isolated incidents.

Just ask the widow of Mario Paz. She was asleep with her husband in their 
Compton home at 11 p.m. in August 1999 when 20 members of the local SWAT 
team shot the locks off the front and back doors and stormed inside. 
Moments later, Mario Paz was dead, shot twice in the back, and his wife was 
outside, half-naked in handcuffs. The SWAT team had a warrant to search a 
neighbor's house for drugs, but Mario Paz was not listed on it. No drugs 
were found, and no member of the family was charged with any crime.

And then there is Denver resident Ismael Mena, a 45-year-old father of 
nine, killed last September in his bedroom by SWAT team members who stormed 
the wrong house.

Or Ramon Gallardo of Dinuba, Calif., shot 15 times in 1997 by a SWAT team 
with a warrant for his son.

Or the Rev. Accelyne Williams of Boston, 75, who died of a heart attack in 
1994 after a Boston SWAT team executing a drug warrant burst into the wrong 

SWAT teams, now numbering an estimated 30,000 nationwide, were originally 
intended for use in emergency situations, hostage-takings, bomb threats and 
the like. Trained for combat, their arsenals (often provided cut rate or 
free of charge by the Pentagon) resemble those of small armies: automatic 
weapons, armored personnel carriers and even grenade launchers.

Today, however, SWAT units are most commonly used to execute drug warrants, 
frequently of the "no-knock" variety, which are issued by judges and 
magistrates when there is reason to suspect that the 4th Amendment's "knock 
and announce" requirement, already perfunctorily applied, would be 
dangerous or futile, or would give residents time to destroy incriminating 

California is one of few states that does not allow no-knock warrants. But 
the fate of Alberto Sepulveda--who was shot dead an estimated 60 seconds 
after the SWAT team "knocked and announced"--suggests the problem is not 
the type of warrant issued but the use of military tactics.

The state's interest in protecting evidence of drug crimes from 
destruction, or even in preventing the escape of suspected drug felons, 
does not justify the threat to individual safety, security and peace of 
mind that the use of these tactics represents. On this, the now-famous 
image of a terrified Elian facing an armed INS agent speaks volumes. Even 
when no shot is fired, these raids leave in their wake families traumatized 
by memories of an armed invasion by government agents.

Police officers, too, are shot in these raids, barging unannounced into 
homes where weapons are kept. These shootings may appear to confirm the 
dangerousness of the criminals being pursued, until one realizes that they 
are committed when people are caught by surprise by intruders in their own 
homes and not unreasonably, if unfortunately, grab a weapon to defend 
themselves. (Suspects also die in these shootouts. Troy Davis, 25, was shot 
point blank in the chest by Texas police who broke down his door during a 
no-knock raid in December 1999 and found him with a gun in his hand. Police 
had been pursuing a tip that Davis and his mother were growing marijuana. 
His gun was legal.)

Using paramilitary units to enforce drug warrants is the inevitable result 
of the government's tendency to see itself as fighting a "war on drugs." 
This rhetoric makes it easy to forget that the targets in these raids are 
not the enemy but fellow citizens, and that the laws being enforced are 
supposed to ensure a safe, peaceful, well-ordered society. If lawmakers in 
Washington and Sacramento are genuinely committed to defending the right of 
the American people to be safe and secure in their own homes, they would 
demand an accounting for the thousands of drug raids executed by SWAT teams 
every year all over the country, raids that get little media attention but 
nonetheless leave their targets traumatized and violated. Assuming, that 
is, that they leave them alive.

Sharon Dolovich Is an Acting Professor at UCLA School of Law
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