Monday, January 26, 2015

Toddler Maimed by SWAT Flash Grenade Sparks Georgia Bills on 'No-Knock' Warrants

Baby Bounkham Phonesavanh. (photo: Justice For Baby Bounkham)

Toddler Maimed by SWAT Flash Grenade Sparks Georgia Bills on 'No-Knock' Warrants

By Liz Fields, VICE News
25 January 15

Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh was sleeping the sound slumber of a 19-month-old in the early hours of May 28, when a Georgia SWAT team burst in unannounced through his relative's front door and tossed a flash bang grenade into his playpen that blasted off most of his nose, collapsed his left lung, and tore his face and body down to muscle and bone.

Habersham County Police had acted on an informant tip-off claiming a methamphetamine dealer lived at the home, but officers found no drugs there and made no arrests at the residence. The widely-reported incident sparked outrage and compelled authorities to re-examine policies on the granting and execution of no-knock search warrants. Seven months after the incident with Bou Bou, lawmakers have introduced two bills to Georgia's legislature that seek to better regulate these types of entries.

Senate Bill 45, filed by Democratic Sen. Vincent Fort this month, would require police to show probable cause that there is imminent potential for life endangerment or destruction of evidence if they knocked and declared their presence at a suspect's door prior to arrest. A separate House Bill 56 would put a stop to unannounced arrests between 10pm and 6am, unless a judge specifically grants a warrant.

Georgia Republican Rep. Kevin Tanner, a co-sponsor of HB56, told VICE News that the legislation was intended to put in place "speed bumps" so supervisors reviewing no-knock arrest warrant applications can make sure they are being used, "only when it is the best course and best option."

Tanner, who previously served 18 years with the Dawson County Sheriff's Office and claims he executed "hundreds" of arrests and used "dozens" of no-knock warrants, said no states currently prohibit the use of these warrants because, "there are absolutely times when they are necessary."

"If they're used properly, they are a very valuable tool for law enforcement," said Tanner. "Granted it should not be in every situation. It should be limited."

Lawmakers are now proposing to tighten up regulations long before a physical warrant is even placed in the hands of arresting officers. The bills set out new conditions requiring law enforcement agencies would first need to establish a written policy on procedure and put in place specific training programs on no-knock arrests before they can seek a warrant.

Those guidelines would prevent further fatalities and incidents like the botched drug raid that injured Bou Bou, who spent weeks recovering in the hospital and racked up nearly $1 million in medical bills that the county has so far refused to pay for.

Bou Bou is now approaching his second birthday and literally still carries with him the residue of the explosion. He will need to undergo several more medical procedures, including one to remove gunpowder remnants still embedded in his face and body, according to the family's lawyer.

"Every day the family wakes up and this child looks in the mirror, they relive the terrible early morning hours of May 28," Mawuli Davis of Davis Bozeman Law, who represents the Phonesavanhs, told VICE News. "It was traumatizing and deeply painful. They're hurting as a family emotionally, financially and physically."

On the same day of the raid that left the baby permanently disfigured, Wanis Thonetheva, a cousin of Bou Bou, was arrested at a house down the street for drug possession. Police knocked on the door and he simply came out, unarmed, according to the family's lawyer.

Davis said the new legislation is a "very good start" to addressing the problems associated with no-knock arrests, but the family would like to see an extra clause added that would force officers to prove "that there are no children or elders present before a no-knock warrant is issued and executed."

"We also would like for there to be training regarding the deployment of flash grenades," he added. "Right now there is no standard training, on whether they should be deployed by a soft toss or slid across the floor — which should be standard practice."

Although a grand jury declined to indict any officers after Bou Bou's case was referred to them by prosecutors, jurors did deliver a scathing assessment of the drug investigation as "hurried" and "sloppy."
"Quite simply put, there should be no such thing as an 'emergency' in drug investigations," the jurorswrote in their recommendations after the decision.

The US attorney's office in Atlanta is still investigating the case, while the family plans to file a civil suit within the next 30 days, Davis said. The issue of their mounting medical bills remains unaddressed.
Tanner, who spent some time serving on a regional drug task force in North Georgia, maintains that the Bou Bou case was not the reason he pushed for the legislation, which he claims to have begun working on eight months ago.

"I'm not a quarterback kind of guy jumping on specific cases that get media attention," Tanner said. "I believe we need to be smarter than that."

Instead of one case, it is likely that a number of no-knock raids gone wrong in recent years have collectively triggered the need for reform in Georgia. These include incidences like last September, when police gunned down a 59-year-old grandfather in a late-night drug bust, which also resulted in no drugs being found, and an episode a few years earlier when a 92-year-old woman was killed by undercover officers during a bungled drug raid on her home in November 2006. The cases follow a host of other deaths that occurred during no-knock arrests in the state.

Nevertheless, the new legislation does seemingly take on board a number of the grand jury's recommendations from the Bou Bou case, especially on standardized training and oversight, while SB45, unveiled as part of wider overhaul measures on law enforcement in Georgia, has already been dubbed "Bou Bou's Law."

The more restrictive use of no-knock warrants proposed in the bills not only aims to spare civilian casualties and injuries, but could also help prevent loss of life on the side of law enforcement. The dangers faced by police during raids was highlighted by two recent cases in Texas, which ended in the shooting deaths of two SWAT team members serving pre-dawn no-knock warrants.

Last May in Kileen, a 49-year-old black man opened fire on four officers, killing one of them, as they tried to clamber through the suspect's window. He is awaiting trial on capital murder charges, which carry the death penalty. Months earlier, less than 100 miles away, a 28-year-old white man shot at police as they tried to enter his rural home near Somerville. He was later found to have acted in self-defense and faces trial only for felony marijuana possession.

While the contrasting cases probe deeply into issues of race and due process, they also tackle the questionable necessity of employing SWAT raids and no-knock arrest in drug investigations. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that more than 60 percent of SWAT deployments, which were initially established for extreme circumstances such as active shooting and hostage scenarios, are now dedicated to drug raids. In half of these raids, police turned up no drugs, according to an ACLU report from June 2014.

"The use of a SWAT team to execute a search warrant essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics to conduct domestic criminal investigations in searches of people's homes," the ACLU said in its assessment.
The report detailed numerous incidences across the country where suspects, officers and bystanders had been injured or killed during SWAT raids, with the majority of those impacted being black citizens. Many of the injuries and deaths cited occurred during no-knock raids.

Davis said the Phonesavanh family is not advocating the elimination of no-knock arrests entirely, but does believe that greater oversight of their execution is desperately needed. The bills, he hopes, will address some of these issues, if enacted. Similar proposed legislation to limit the use of no-knock warrants, animated by the incident with the 92-year-old woman, was thrown out by Georgia lawmakers in 2007.

"We recognize that no-knock warrants are a necessary evil in the fight against criminal activities, but they should be taken very, very seriously and really limited to taking down the most dangerous criminal enterprises," Davis said.

"Bou Bou was blown up based on the $50 purchase of meth that happened not in the house, not in the room," he added. "It doesn't seem that the cost warrants this kind of effort. It's totally disproportionate. Blowing up a baby is never worth it."

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