In late 2020, the Virginia Governor signed into law a bill that prohibited the use of no-knock warrants. This law came into being after Breonna Taylor was tragically shot and killed by an officer who entered her home without first announcing that he was law-enforcement. Breonna Taylor was not a Virginia resident, but her case made national news and caused law makers around the country to begin to reconsider the use of no-knock warrants. Virginia is the third State in the Union to ban the use of no-knock warrants.
A no-knock warrant is when the police enter a residence or structure without first announcing their presence. Typically, when the police approach a home they will knock and give the homeowner a heads up that they are about to enter. This alerts the homeowner to the fact that it is police entering the home and not a criminal for which they may need to defend themselves. But, with a no-knock warrant the police do not announce their presence prior to entering. In many cases this will catch the homeowner off guard and he or she may attempt to defend himself and his home from the intruder.
No-knock warrants gained popularity in the early 1960s when police were searching houses for drugs, primarily marijuana. The police discovered that if they announced their presence before entering, then the criminal would have time to flush the drugs or other contraband down the toilet.
The Virginia Supreme Court, in the decision of Johnson v. Commonwealth, 213 Va 102, 189 SE 2nd 678 (1972) decided that no-knock warrants were lawful in Virginia when exigencies were present. So, since at least 1972, police in Virginia have been able to enter your home without first announcing their presence if they believed the situation warranted.
Typically, if the police believe that warning a suspect would give him time to hide or destroy evidence then a no-knock warrant was used. Also, if the police believed the person was armed and announcing their presence would only give him a chance to grab his gun and “take cover” before the officers entered, then they would use the no-knock warrant.
As of March 1, 2021, Section 19.2-56 of the Virginia Code shall read, in part:
B. No law-enforcement officer shall seek, execute, or participate in the execution of a no-knock search warrant. A search warrant authorized under this section shall require that a law-enforcement officer be recognizable and identifiable as a uniformed law-enforcement officer and provide audible notice of his authority and purpose reasonably expected to be heard by occupants of such place to be searched prior to the execution of such search warrant.
After entering and securing the place to be searched and prior to undertaking any search or seizure pursuant to the search warrant, the executing law-enforcement officer shall read and give a copy of the search warrant to the person to be searched or the owner of the place to be searched or, if the owner is not present, to any occupant of the place to be searched. If the place to be searched is unoccupied, the executing law-enforcement officer shall leave a copy of the search warrant suitably affixed to the place to be searched.
Not only does this new law eliminate the well-established practice of no-knock warrants, but it also seems to eliminate the practice of “sneak-and-peek” warrants in Virginia. The “sneak-and-peek” warrant is where the police enter a home, when the homeowner is not present, without ever telling the homeowner he was searched. Sometimes the police would confiscate contraband during the “sneak and peek” search and not tell the homeowner that they took his drugs. When the homeowner got back and discovered his drugs missing, without having any knowledge that it was the police that took them, he would blame his rival drug dealer, leading to tragic consequences.
The banning of no-knock warrants applies only to Virginia police officers. Federal agents can still execute no-knock warrants and sneak-and-peek searches. Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, has introduced a bill in Congress that, if passed, would prohibit the use of no-knock warrants nationwide.
Police officers are very concerned that the banning of no-knock warrants will make their jobs more difficult and far more dangerous. They believe by announcing their presence prior to entry, a violent criminal will have time to arm himself and take a defensive position within the home, putting the officer’s life at even more risk.