By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Prince George's County authorities did not have a "no-knock" warrant when they burst into the home of a mayor July 29, shooting and killing his two dogs -- contrary to what police said after the incident.
Judges in Maryland can grant police the right to enter a building and serve a search warrant without knocking if the judge finds there is reasonable suspicion to think evidence might be destroyed or the officers' safety might be endangered in announcing themselves.
A Prince George's police spokesman said last week that a Sheriff's Office SWAT team and county police narcotics officers were operating under such a warrant when they broke down the door of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, shooting and killing his black Labrador retrievers.
But a review of the warrant indicates that police neither sought nor received permission from Circuit Court Judge Albert W. Northrup to enter without knocking. Northrup found probable cause to suspect that drugs might be in the house and granted police a standard search warrant.
"There's nothing in the four corners of the warrant saying anything about the Calvos being a threat to law enforcement," said Calvo's attorney, Timothy Maloney. "This was a lawless act by law enforcement."
Police spokesman Henry Tippett said yesterday that the statement about the warrant that public affairs officers released Friday was based on information provided by Maj. Mark Magaw, commander of the narcotics enforcement division. A request to interview Magaw was not immediately granted yesterday, and Tippett said he could not explain the discrepancy.
"That was the information that was given to us," he said.
Calvo's home was raided after he brought a package addressed to his wife inside from his front porch. Police had been tracking the package since a dog sniffed the presence of drugs in Arizona. It was delivered to the house by police posing as deliverymen and left on the porch on the instruction of Calvo's mother-in-law.
After the raid, police found the unopened package, containing 32 pounds of marijuana, in the house. According to law enforcement sources, police are investigating whether a deliveryman might have been the intended recipient of the package instead of Calvo or his wife. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is open.
Calvo has said that sheriff's deputies entered without knocking and began shooting immediately, killing 7-year-old Payton first, then shooting 4-year-old Chase as he ran to another room.
Sheriff Michael Jackson (D) has not returned several messages about the case. Sgt. Mario Ellis, a Sheriff's Office spokesman, said last Wednesday that deputies regretted shooting the dogs but that they had felt threatened by them. He has not returned calls since.
The case has highlighted friction between law enforcement agencies. The county police and Sheriff's Office have jurisdiction throughout Prince George's and typically handle major crimes, but they share jurisdiction with smaller police forces in some of the county's 27 towns and cities.
Berwyn Heights Police Chief Patrick Murphy has been highly critical of the county police for not alerting his eight-member department before the raid. He said his officers could have gained entry to the home without incident or informed county police that Calvo was unlikely to be violent.
Greenbelt Police Chief James R. Craze said yesterday that county officers contacted his 54-member department the day of the raid to ask whether his emergency response unit could serve the warrant. County police have said the Sheriff's Office was asked to participate because its team was busy at the time. Craze said it is not unusual for agencies to cooperate in such cases.
"From what I know, their SWAT team wasn't available, and that's why they were out shopping," he said.
He said his department, which conducts a drug raid a month, declined to take part because it is authorized to operate outside city limits only when the raid is conducted by a regional task force led by the Maryland State Police. County police are not part of the task force, Craze said.
Craze said county police do not always alert his officers when operating in Greenbelt. "Obviously, I would prefer that they do," he said.
The warrant issue will probably only heighten anger in the community over the incident. Even when a search warrant has been issued, courts have held that police must generally knock to announce their presence, preserve the privacy of a homeowner and let occupants know they are not experiencing an illegal home invasion.
"It's a traditional constitutional protection, going back forever," said defense attorney Richard A. Finci, who is not involved with the Calvo case.
Police officers are sometimes allowed to search without knocking, even without getting authority in advance, but courts have ruled they can do so only if there are specific circumstances at the time of the search that lead officers to conclude evidence might be destroyed or law enforcement could be endangered, said lawyer William C. Brennan, who is not involved with the case.
Were Calvo or his wife, Trinity Tomsic, to be charged in the case, the issue of the search could come up if prosecutors tried to introduce the box of marijuana as evidence. More likely, experts said, the issue could form the basis of a civil rights lawsuit filed by the family against the county in the incident.
Another issue that could arise in court is whether officers provided Calvo a copy of the warrant at the time of the raid, as required by law. Maloney said they did not, even though a detective signed a sworn statement to the judge indicating that he had. Instead, the detective brought the warrant to Calvo several days later, Maloney said.
Maloney said that Calvo and Tomsic are waiting for an explanation from law enforcement and that it would be premature discuss legal action.