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Little Rock’s dangerous and illegal drug war

October 14, 2018 at 3:42 PM

This post has been updated.

“You don’t know what fear is until you wake up and your own front door is flying at you,” says Roderick Talley.

It was early on a hot morning last summer, and he was dozing on his couch in front of a flickering television. A little before 6:30 a.m., a deafening boom woke Talley and sent his front door flying off its hinges. The door traveled about six feet through the air before landing on top of him and the couch where he had been sleeping. Quickly, 11 heavily armed men filed in, bellowing out a wall of unintelligible commands that Talley was too shaken to process. It took him several seconds to realize they were police.

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A Little Rock, Ark., SWAT team uses explosives to blow through Roderick Talley’s front door on Aug. 10, 2017. Talley, on the sofa, puts his hands up while police raid his apartment as his dog watches. (Roderick Talley's security camera)

“Once I figured that out, I just did what I do when I’ve been pulled over,” he says. “I threw my hands up as far up over my head as I could. I didn’t want them to say I was reaching for something and shoot me. I didn’t want them to shoot my dog. I just wanted to survive.”

Talley, 31, is a barber. At the time he was living in Little Rock. Since moving there from Mississippi in 2010, his apartment has been burgled three times, and someone has stolen packages from his doorstep. The complex where he currently resided had recently put out a notice to residents to be on the alert for break-ins. So Talley bought a security system to monitor both the inside and outside of his apartment. About a week before the raid, the outdoor camera picked up some strange activity outside Talley’s apartment. As he sat handcuffed while police officers rifled through his belongings, he began to make the connection.

The outside camera had recorded two odd incidents. First, a man whom Talley didn’t know approached the apartment while Talley wasn’t home. Looking anxious, the man knocked, waited a few moments and then left. A few days later, the camera picked up a police officer outside the door. The officer looked around, snapped a photo of Talley’s door with his cellphone, and left.

Talley at one point told his father about the two visits, who in turn relayed the story to a police officer friend. “When he heard about both men, he told my dad, ‘It sounds like they’re about to kick down your son’s door,’ ” Talley says.

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A security camera shows a Little Rock police officer snapping a photo outside Roderick Talley's door on August 4, 2017, six days before police raided his apartment. (Roderick Talley's security camera)

After an initial search, the SWAT team called in K9 units. The police later documented on an evidence sheet what they found. It wasn’t much:

After the search, one of the raiding officers noticed that Talley’s security system had a camera inside the door as well as outside. “They got real excited about that,” he says. The same officer then asked him if they could watch the raid on the monitor. Talley talked them through how to pull up the video and play it back — all the while still handcuffed to the chair. Several officers then watched the footage over and over, laughing and marveling at what they had just put Talley through. A few recorded the footage on their cellphones. One said, “That was worth coming to work for.” Another turned to Talley and said, “Hey, we ain’t laughing at you, man.”

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Roderick Talley sits handcuffed on Aug. 10, 2017, as Little Rock police officers rifle through his belongings, laugh and use their cellphones to record security camera footage of the raid they just conducted on his apartment. (Roderick Talley's security camera)

When the officers told him they had found only enough marijuana to charge him with a misdemeanor, Talley asked whether they could take off the handcuffs and let him come to the station later, on his own. “I can’t let you do that,” one said. “We have to take you to county in cuffs.”

“I got the impression that since they had just done this big raid and scared all of my neighbors, they felt like they had to bring out someone in handcuffs to make it all worthwhile.”

Other targets of LRPD raids tell similar stories. In addition to Roderick Talley, I’ve talked to nine other people who have been raided by the LRPD’s narcotics unit over the past two years. I’ve also reviewed more than 100 search warrants executed by the unit since 2016. According to policing and Fourth Amendment experts, these interviews and warrants show that the LRPD narcotics cops and SWAT teams are routinely violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Little Rock residents. They’re also putting people at unnecessary risk. And there’s strong evidence that, in some cases, officers have made demonstrably false statements under oath. (In response to a list of questions I emailed to LRPD Chief Kenton Buckner, Little Rock city attorney Thomas Carpenter responded that city officials could not comment on any questions related to Talley due to pending litigation. He added, “As to your other questions, the policies of the LRPD as they relate to the subject of your email are in full compliance with both Arkansas state law and federal civil rights law.”)

There are three main areas of concern. First, the narcotics unit appears to be routinely violating the Fourth Amendment by serving nearly all of its warrants with no-knock raids. It’s asking for no-knock warrants without demonstrating why each suspect merits a no-knock entry, as required by federal law. Worse yet, Little Rock judges are then signing off on these warrants.

Second, the LRPD is serving many of these warrants by using explosives that SWAT veterans I’ve interviewed say are reckless, dangerous and wholly inappropriate for use in drug raids. I’ve also spoken to at least two people who say there were children in the home when the explosives were used.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, there’s clear evidence that one informant whom LRPD drug cops have been using — the informant used to obtain probable cause against Talley and others — has been lying to police about his drug buys. At minimum, the detectives who worked with him have been inexcusably sloppy in their handling of him. But there’s also evidence that raises questions about their own truthfulness.

Some of these raids haven’t turned up any contraband at all. Some have turned up small amounts of pot or prescription drugs that may not have been illegal. Only a handful have turned up significant quantities of drugs or weapons. Many times, the only thing illegal about the weapons seized is that they were found near illegal drugs. The majority of these raids failed to find either the type of drug that the informant claimed to have bought or the currency the police gave him to buy it.

After the police leave, the suspects and the people who live with them are left with misdemeanor charges — or no charges at all — along with shattered doors, broken windows, floors scorched by flash grenades, and plenty of trauma. Some have been evicted, despite the fact that the police found little or no contraband. Others have been charged by landlords for repairs they can’t afford. Some have had their savings confiscated. None had received an apology, compensation or an offer to repair the door.

‘They picked the wrong guy to set up’

When Roderick Talley returned from the police station on the morning of the raid, the police left the search warrant for his apartment, along with an affidavit written and signed by an LRPD detective. (The Watch is not naming the detective at this time because, as of publication, Little Rock police are insisting he was an undercover officer at the time.) According to the LRPD detective, an LRPD “courtesy officer” assigned to the Pleasant Ridge Apartments said that the manager of the complex had received “numerous complaints” about narcotics trafficking from Talley’s apartment. The courtesy officer then passed this complaint along to the drug unit, which opened an investigation.

I contacted three of Talley’s former neighbors to inquire about the allegations of drug trafficking. All three said the accusation is preposterous.

Briunna Woods, 24, a leasing agent, is the neighbor who lived directly across the hall from Talley. “My grandmother lives in that complex, too,” Woods says. “She’s a retired court bailiff. Talley is such a nice guy that when I first moved to Little Rock, my grandmother made it a point to introduce me to him.” Woods says she saw no evidence of drug trafficking. “It isn’t possible,” she says. “I can tell you that between his job and his volunteer work, he was never home. I know because I used to watch his dog when he was gone.”

Roderick Talley. (Courtesy of Roderick Talley/)

Tiffany Welch, 21, works at a car dealership. She lived in the building next to Talley’s, but still heard the explosion on the morning of the raid. “It scared us to death,” she says. “I went outside later to see what was going on and saw some cops standing around and laughing. I asked what had happened and one said, ‘We just took out your local drug dealer.'” Welch didn’t believe them. “Other than the occasional girlfriend, I rarely saw anyone at his apartment,” she says. “I don’t know where they’re getting that. I’d like to add that Talley is just a good person. He was really the only person in the apartment complex that I talked to.”

Welch says she eventually moved away from Little Rock because she felt unsafe — not because of the crime, but because of the police. “After seeing what happened to Talley, I felt like they could do that to anyone — that they’re above the law. That’s scary to me.”

Scott Campbell, 31, is manager of a local Starbucks. He lived in a building adjacent to Talley’s. “It’s just sad that Talley had to go through this,” Campbell says. “He’s is an incredibly nice person. He volunteered in his free time. He was not some drug dealer.”

According to the detective’s affidavit, on Aug. 3 of last year, the LRPD Street Narcotics Detail contacted an informant to make a controlled drug buy from Talley. The detective wrote that they searched the informant thoroughly, recorded the serial numbers on five $20 bills and then sent the informant to Talley’s apartment to buy cocaine.

The detective wrote that he and two other detectives then watched as the informant approached Talley’s apartment. Importantly, the detective wrote that the officers “observed the door open” and witnessed the informant have “a conversation with someone inside the apartment.” Immediately after, they met up with the informant at a prearranged location. The informant said he had just purchased $100 worth of cocaine from two men in the apartment. One man took his money at the door, then an inside man handed the door man a small bag of cocaine. According to the affidavit, the detectives then showed the informant a photo of Roderick Talley. The informant affirmed that Talley was the man at the door.

After reading the affidavit, Talley went back to check the camera footage of his mysterious visitor from the previous week. “Sure enough,” he says. “The dates matched up. And nobody else came to my apartment that day.” The informant described in the affidavit was the same man Talley’s camera had recorded knocking on his door, waiting and then leaving. Talley wasn’t home at the time. The account given by the detectives and informant was false. And Talley had the video to prove it.

Just a little investigation into Talley should have shown he hardly fit the profile of a drug trafficker. As his neighbors attest, he was rarely home. While Talley does have a limited criminal history, it’s mostly for misdemeanors and for violating a protective order from a girlfriend that Talley says was later lifted when the two got back together. (This corresponds with court records, which show that the charges related to Talley violating the order were later dropped.) He has one felony conviction, reduced to a misdemeanor, from 2015 for assault after an altercation with an older man. He says he regrets that, though he also says both men were at fault.

But Talley’s profile looks more like that of a guy getting his life together. He recently earned a barber’s license. Three months before the raid, he founded a nonprofit called Hope Begins With ME. On the day before the raid, he says, he was at J.C. Penney buying discounted book bags. He was planning a back-to-school event called “Bookbags and Haircuts,” in which he gave out free trims and school bags to low-income kids.

The day after he was raided, the manager of Talley’s apartment complex told him that his lease, which was up at the end of the month, would not be renewed — and that if he was seen on the premises after that, he would be arrested for trespassing. The complex then billed for the damage the police had done to the apartment.

Talley gathered his belongings and stayed with some friends in the suburb of Sherwood while he figured out what to do next. Not long after, someone called the local police department and falsely claimed Talley had taken a hostage at the house. “I opened the door to find a SWAT officer pointing a gun at me,” Talley says. The other occupants of the house assured the officers that Talley had done nothing of the kind. “I was tired of having guns pointed at me. So I lost my patience and cursed at him. They arrested me for disturbing the peace.” That charge was dropped, but the incident convinced Talley it was time to leave the Little Rock area. He moved back to Mississippi to live with his grandmother.

In October of last year, all charges against Talley stemming from the raid were nol-prossed — a term prosecutors use to concede they lack the evidence to try the case, but still leaving open the possibility of charging again later. But Talley didn’t put the raid behind him. Instead, for the past year he has been on a mission to figure out what happened to him and why.

That mission actually began before Talley moved, when he attempted to file a complaint with LRPD’s Internal Affairs Division. “They wouldn’t even take my name,” he says. “Wouldn’t even take a report. I showed them the videos. I explained how [the detective] had to have been lying. The Internal Affairs officers just told me that [the detective] was a good guy and said they didn’t see anything wrong with what I had showed them.”

Over the ensuing weeks, Talley scoured Facebook and Instagram. He talked to residents of the apartments and the surrounding neighborhood. He started watching the Arkansas courts website for cases that looked similar to his. He eventually found a mug shot of the informant. The man who falsely claimed to have purchased cocaine from Talley is a nine-time felon whose criminal record includes nine convictions for theft and another five for burglary. He has also been convicted for giving a false name to police officers after an arrest, for filing a false police report, and, while behind bars, for writing a death threat to a police officer, forging another inmate’s signature on the threat, and then reporting the threat in exchange for reducing his own charges.

Despite that considerable record of theft and deception, on his sworn affidavit the detective used the word “reliable” to describe the informant 21 times. He also noted that the informant had served as an informant on at least five prior occasions, which resulted in “numerous felony convictions.” (I briefly reached the informant on his cellphone. After I introduced myself he said, “I didn’t have nothing to do with that,” and hung up. The informant did not respond to my subsequent text messages, nor did his girlfriend, through whom I had also tried to reach the informant.)

Talley says the informant did speak to him, and when he confronted him about his own case, the informant admitted that he never bought cocaine that day. Furthermore, “his girlfriend told me that he’d get paid for each bust, so he’d just take the cops to the places of people he knew or had heard about, knock on the door, and then he’d just make small talk for a few minutes,” Talley says. “Then he’d go tell the cops that he’d bought whatever drug they were looking for.”

That jibes with the accounts of two other people who say they were recently raided because of the informant. Derrick Davis says that on Sept. 2, 2017, a few weeks after the raid on Talley, a strange man knocked on his door. “I’d never seen the guy before,” Davis says. “He just comes up, knocks and walks right in. Then he starts asking weird questions about my apartment, like whether I like living there, and how much the rent is. He stayed for a few minutes, then he thanked me and left. It was weird.”

Two weeks later, an LRPD raid team blew down Davis’s door. “I saw the video of what they did to Mr. Talley. It was exactly what they did to me,” he says. “They used explosives. It blew the door clean off. Then about 10 guys came in, all decked out in SWAT gear.”

The police found a small amount of marijuana, which Davis admits was his for personal use. Davis, now 26, is also a registered gun owner. “Have been since I was 21,” he says. “What you have to understand is, to register a gun you give the police your name, ID and Social Security number, and they create a record with all of that, plus the serial number for your gun. Now you tell me: What drug dealer voluntarily gives the police his Social Security number and the serial number off his gun?”

Under both state and federal law, any gun found in proximity to an illegal drug is illegal, regardless of whether the owner has otherwise complied with gun laws. So Davis, who had no prior criminal record, still faces both a possession charge and a gun charge.

“I ended up spending three days in jail,” he says. “I almost lost my job. I got evicted from my apartment. And now my landlord is telling me I have to pay to fix the door.”

Talley found Davis’s case late last year on the Arkansas courts site. After contacting Davis, Talley showed him a photo of the informant. “Oh, that was him,” Davis says. “That was the guy who came to my apartment. He has what you might call a unique look. You don’t forget a guy like that.” The informant told the police that Davis sold him cocaine. The police found only pot, a scale, Davis’s gun, bullets and the registration for his gun.

Juanglecio Boykins says he was also raided because of the informant. But unlike Davis or Talley, Boykins actually knows the informant. “Me and [him] grew up together,” he says. “The thing you have to know about [him] is, he’s a sad guy. He has no money, and he’s a [crack] smoker. … Anyone who knows him knows he’s the last guy you’d trust in a police investigation. If you’re paying him, he’ll say whatever you want him to.”

Boykins lives in a duplex. He says the police were investigating the man who lives next to him, a squatter, for selling drugs. According to Boykins, the informant and the squatter are good friends, so the informant simply told police that Boykins was the drug dealer instead.

As with the others, the LRPD raid on Boykins’s home used explosives. And the SWAT team blew both his front and back doors off their hinges. They found some pot and a gun that Boykins says is legal but belongs to his brother. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute and for the gun’s proximity to the marijuana. “They tried to get me to take a plea bargain. But I’m 45 years old, and I’ve never been convicted of anything. I knew [the informant] had rigged the case against me. So I wasn’t going to plead to anything.”

Interestingly, on Sept. 27 of this year, a Pulaski County prosecutor nol-prossed the charges against Boykins. That in itself isn’t all that unusual — they did the same in Talley’s case. But this time, the prosecutor said the state was dropping the charges due to violations of Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court case that requires police and prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. (The office of county prosecutor Larry Jegley did not respond to my request for an interview.) That is more unusual. More interesting still is the note the prosecutor wrote in the case file: “Det. Rob Bell told me that after the arrest of D [the defendant], LRPD found out that the CI [confidential informant] lied re: the ‘Control Buy.'”

But if that’s true, it’s hard to see how the detectives haven’t been lying, too. In Talley’s case, they claimed to have seen a door open and to have witnessed a conversation. Video disproves both. And in both cases, police claimed in the sworn affidavit that they searched the informant before the drug buy and found no drugs, that they monitored him throughout the entire process, and that when they met up with him after the alleged buy, he presented them with the drug he claimed to have bought — cocaine from Talley, pot from Boykins. To claim that the informant lied about the drug buy doesn’t explain why the police still claimed under oath that the informant returned from the buy with baggies of illicit drugs —  or what happened to those baggies.

“When you send an informant to make a drug buy, you search him thoroughly,” says Neill Franklin, a police reform advocate and a 34-year veteran with both SWAT and narcotics experience at the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police. “And I mean thoroughly. You strip-search them. You search every nook and cranny. Maybe the informant was playing these detectives. But if he was, they were more than willing to be played.”

In the months after his own raid, Talley filed open-records requests for every warrant and affidavit involving the detectives who handled his case. He then expanded out and asked for warrants related to other officers on the drug unit. “My family wanted me to stay quiet, stay under the radar,” he says. “They were worried about my safety. But that just isn’t me. I can’t let them keep doing this to people.”

He also continued to use social media to publicize his case and reach out to others who may have been raided. He says he was at one point suspended from Facebook for posting the officers’ identities, photos and contact information, though Talley insists this was all public record. When he began to realize the enormity of what he was discovering, he reached out for help. “I wrote to every attorney I could think of. I wrote to the county attorney, the public defender, the Arkansas branch of the FBI, the Justice Department, the ACLU. None of them ever got back to me.” So he filed a lawsuit himself.

A friend eventually told Talley about an attorney named Michael Laux, who has represented other plaintiffs in civil rights litigation against the LRPD. After meeting with Talley, Laux agreed to represent him in his lawsuit against the LRPD and the city, and brought along Benjamin Crump, who has been an attorney for the families of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.

“The minute Ben and I compared the video to the affidavit,” Laux says, “we knew we had to help Mr. Talley out. And based on what we’ve reviewed, there are scores of innocent people [in Little Rock] doing hard time on bogus affidavits like these.”

In response to the lawsuit, the city’s first move was to ask a judge to seal the search warrants, affidavits and everything else Talley had found — including Talley’s own security camera videos. Laux and Crump fought the motion and won. Talley had obtained all of that information from his own cameras or from public records. The city couldn’t then bar him from sharing or publishing it.

‘This is just wrong’

I sent the footage of the LRPD raid on Roderick Talley to two former SWAT officers and police trainers for comment. The first is Joe Key, who served 26 years in the Baltimore Police Department and started the city’s first SWAT team. Today, Key is a consultant for police agencies and testifies in civil cases, mostly in defense of law enforcement officers.

“For the life of me, I just don’t know what to say,” Key says. “You only use an explosive entry for emergencies or exigent circumstances. You typically use them to cut a hole in the wall or to get through a reinforced door when the suspect is violent and timing is urgent, like a hostage situation. This shouldn’t have even been a no-knock warrant. This is just wrong.”

Key adds that the explosives are a threat to anyone inside the targeted residence. “It’s just incredible. If [Talley] had heard someone outside the door and gotten up to see who was there, he might well be dead.”

I also sent the video to Neil Franklin, whose reaction is similar. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he says. “I mean, you’re putting everyone there at risk. If someone is on the immediate other side of that door, you’re looking at serious injury — possibly death.”

Franklin also points out that the explosives put a suspect such as Talley in an impossible position. “With the sheer acoustical level of that blast, you’re looking at a temporary loss of hearing for anyone not wearing earplugs. So why are they issuing verbal commands? No one in that apartment is going to hear them. I have a gun by my bed for protection. And I’ll tell you, if they came into my house that way, there would have been gunfire.”

Franklin was also bothered by the sheer number of SWAT officers in such a small space. “You don’t bring that many guys. It’s just more opportunity for someone to make a mistake, to mishear something and start firing. And as we’ve seen in other instances, when one guy starts firing, they all start firing.”

In addition to Talley, Davis and Boykins, other Little Rock residents have experienced similar raids, based on similarly flimsy evidence. Anthony Bell was checking on his mother early in the morning of Sept. 29, 2016, when he says he saw a team of heavily armed men in dark clothing running toward her house. One of them tackled Bell to the ground. “I couldn’t see because a cop was on top of me, but I definitely heard the explosions,” Bell says. “There were two 6-year-olds and a 13-year-old in that house, along with my mother, who’s paralyzed from the waist down. They blew the front and back doors right off the wall. And I don’t mean they blew the door open. I mean there was no door left.”

The police claimed Bell’s uncle had sold crack to an informant. “My uncle used drugs for a while, but he’s been clean for years,” Bell says. The raid turned up 24 grams of marijuana, a firearm and two unspecified pills. To his surprise, Bell says the police then arrested him for the pot and the gun. “They took me to the bathroom and strip-searched me, and then they took me to jail. I don’t even live in that house. I just go there to check on my mother every few days.” As with Talley and Boykins, prosecutors later nol-prossed the charges against Bell. But they never fixed the doors. “We could only afford to replace the front door,” he says. “So we just put a board over the hole where the back door used to be.”

Of the 105 warrants I reviewed, the police claimed to have found some quantity of illicit drugs in 85, leaving 20 raids that turned up no contraband at all. But even among those 85, they rarely found a significant quantity of the drug they claimed their informant had purchased. In some, they claimed to have found “residue” of a “powder” or “leafy substance,” but it isn’t clear whether those substances were ever tested. In others they claimed to have found a “pill bottle” or “pills,” without always revealing what the pills were, or whether the owner had a prescription for them. In 35 of the 105 no-knock raids, the police only had probable cause to search for marijuana. In eight others, they found only marijuana despite obtaining a search warrant for harder drugs.

Nearly all the people raided that I spoke to were lower-income, and all but one were black. Of the 105 warrants I reviewed, 84 were for black suspects, 16 were for white and five were for Latinos. Little Rock as a whole is 46 percent white and 42 percent black. Hispanics and Latinos of any race make up just under 7 percent of the population.

Every raid a no-knock raid

Beyond the use of informants, there’s another, more fundamental problem with how the LRPD’s narcotics unit is policing drug crimes — it appears to be executing nearly every drug warrant with a no-knock raid.

The 105 warrants I reviewed were those the LRPD gave in response to Roderick Talley’s records request. They cover the period from October 2016 through June 2018. He requested warrants from this period for every member of the narcotics unit, so either this comprises the entire population of warrants served by the drug warrant during that time, or the LRPD did not fully cooperate with Talley’s records request.

Of the 105 warrants, LRPD officers requested a no-knock raid in 103. Of those 103, Little Rock’s criminal court judges granted the request in at least 101. (The other two search warrants were missing the page that included the judge’s instructions on how the warrant should be served.) The police included information particular to the suspect in question only in eight warrants. Usually, this meant a comment from the informant about seeing a weapon. In two instances, the police justified their request for a no-knock warrant by noting that the suspect was a registered gun owner. As Derrick Davis suggests, that fact should not only augur against a no-knock warrant; it’s also probably a good indication that the suspect isn’t a major drug dealer. In two other cases, the police requested a no-knock warrant despite the fact that the informant explicitly mentioned not seeing any weapons in the residence.

Fourth Amendment scholars say this is a huge problem. In the 1995 case Wilson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that the “knock and announce rule” is a fundamental part of the Fourth Amendment. This rule — rooted in a centuries-old legal tradition called the Castle Doctrine (which posits that the home should be a place of peace and sanctuary) — states that police officers cannot forcibly enter a home without first knocking, announcing themselves and giving the occupants of the house a reasonable amount of time to answer the door without violence. But the ruling also carved out some exceptions, such as when a suspect is known to be violent, or in cases in which there’s reason to think that evidence could quickly be destroyed. The court ruled that police officers must provide evidence for such “exigent circumstances” in order to obtain a no-knock warrant.

Some police agencies adapted to the Wilson ruling by simply deciding that all drug cases involve violent suspects and easily destroyable evidence. The Supreme Court rejected this approach two years later in the 1997 case Richards v. Wisconsin. The court ruled that to obtain a no-knock warrant, law enforcement officers must demonstrate specific exigent circumstances for each suspect for whom they’re trying to obtain a no-knock warrant. They can’t simply state that an entire class of crimes, such as drug crimes, presents de facto exigent circumstances.

But this is exactly what LRPD’s narcotics detectives appear to be doing. Every no-knock affidavit I reviewed included boilerplate language about exigent circumstances. Word for word, the detectives included the same verbiage about how drug dealers typically have access to guns and are inherently dangerous, and how the surprise tactics of a no-knock, dynamic entry will make it safer for the officers serving the warrant and everyone inside. And again, in 95 of the 103 no-knock warrants granted, the boilerplate language was all that the police relied upon to request — and receive — a no-knock warrant.

John Wesley Hall is a longtime defense attorney in Little Rock, the author of a casebook on the Fourth Amendment, and the lawyer who successfully argued the Wilson case before the Supreme Court. “The police have to articulate a reason why a particular suspect is a threat to officer safety, or a threat to destroy evidence,” Hall says. “If they’re just using boilerplate language on every warrant, then they’re violating the Fourth Amendment every time. And if our judges are signing off on these, that’s a big problem.”

The vast majority of the warrants I reviewed were approved by two judges, both of whom who served the Little Rock District Court between 2016 and 2018. Alice Lightle signed most of the warrants from 2016 through her retirement at the end of April 2017. Hugh Finkelstein was appointed as her replacement and signed most of the warrants thereafter.

Finkelstein declined to comment on the record about most aspects of this article, but he did say that he has rejected search warrants for lacking probable cause. But when I asked whether he has ever specifically rejected a request for a no-knock warrant, he said he couldn’t recall.

Lightle moved to Colorado after her retirement, but I was able to reach her over email. “I signed many many warrants for drug cases,” she wrote. “Many more than the 100 that you have in front of you. More like thousands. And yes, I know that I signed many warrants that were NOT for a no-knock.”

Of course, there are lots of reasons that courts issue search warrants other than drug crimes. But the warrants I reviewed were in response to Talley’s request for all documents related to cases involving members of the LRPD’s drug unit over a period of 20 months. All but two of these warrants requested permission to conduct a no-knock raid. And all but two were granted.

I asked Lightle whether she recalled granting no-knock warrants that lacked particularized information for each suspect. She replied, “With every affidavit, I specifically questioned the officer/detective about the particular circumstances for any warrant. I never signed a warrant without knowing exactly what was going on in each circumstance. Even when a warrant was signed by electronic means that was prefaced by conversation between the detective and myself usually by phone. I take the no-knock requirement seriously and upon the provision of the probable cause I was satisfied that it was warranted.”

But if Lightle based her to decision to grant a no-knock warrant on information from a phone call, that information should have been appended to the affidavit. “There’s certainly no law against supplementing search warrant affidavit with additional information,” says Fourth Amendment scholar and University of Michigan law professor David Moran. “But that information must be documented. If it came from a conversation with a police officer, that officer needs to be sworn, and the conversation should be transcribed.” If the no-knock warrants Lightle signed did include such addendums, they weren’t included with the documents the LRPD provided in response to Talley’s open-records request.

Lightle was insistent that she gave no-knock warrant requests adequate scrutiny. “I would take issue if you are saying this was some type of  ‘assembly line’ process. I was a conscientious judge and I looked carefully at what came before me and why certain premises were to be searched . . . I never signed a warrant without knowing the totality of the circumstances as presented to me.”

But if a no-knock warrant doesn’t include information on exigent circumstances that’s specific to each suspect — and they don’t — then they’re illegal. “The Supreme Court was clear on this,” Moran says. “You can’t use boilerplate language.”

Moran says the likely reason that police agencies such as the LRPD can get away with this goes back to the Supreme Court’s ruling in another no-knock case, Hudson v. Michigan in 2006. Moran actually argued that case, and lost.

“The court ruled 5-4 that even if police officers violate the knock-and-announce rule, they can still use any incriminating evidence they find against you,” he says. In his majority opinion, Antonin Scalia suggested other ways of deterring police from violating the knock-and-announce rule, such as lawsuits or professional discipline.

“You can see how that worked out,” Moran says. “At the time, we couldn’t find a single case in which a jury had returned anything other than nominal damages for a violation of the knock-and-announce rule. So since Hudson, there’s really been no deterrent, no incentive to prevent the police from kicking down doors, even when it’s illegal.”

It seems doubtful that the this informant’s cases were isolated — that the only LRPD detectives and/or informants who have lied in search warrant affidavits were those who happened to get caught by a citizen with a security camera. But even accepting as much, there remains the extraordinarily violent way these warrants are being served. And even forgiving that, there remains the problem that the LRPD narcotics unit is violating the Fourth Amendment nearly every time its officers serve a drug warrant — and that the city’s judges, the check and balance on police excess, are letting it happen.

“I’m not really mad at [the informant],” says Talley. “I think they pressured him, and probably duped him. It’s the detectives I want held accountable — the ones lying. They’re ruining people’s lives. Leaving people homeless. Taking people’s savings. I’m the one with the proof. So I figure it’s up to me to do something about it.”


Radley Balko writes and edits The Watch, a reported blog covering civil liberties and the criminal-justice system. Previously, he was an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and a writer and editor for Reason magazine. His most recent book is "The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South."

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