Pubdate: Thu, 05 Jun 2014
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Jim Galloway


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

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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