“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass – a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.”
– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist.
If Dickens were alive and writing today, he might have a character express a similar opinion of a law recently enacted in the otherwise sensible state of Indiana. The law, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, authorizes citizens to use force against “public servants” (read police officers) whom they reasonably believe to be entering their home illegally.
This law is an ass, for reasons I’ll explain.
Some years ago I was the lead investigator on a case that attracted our attention to a particular apartment in a public housing project. We were thorough in our investigation, which included surveillance and other measures to ensure we were focused on the right suspect at the right apartment. I wrote a search warrant which was approved by a judge, and on the appointed day my colleagues and I prepared to serve it.
We were assisted in the matter by employees of the Los Angeles Housing Authority, which manages the city’s public housing complexes. I was supplied with a map of the complex in question, which indicated that the targeted apartment was actually two smaller units that had been combined into one larger one by means of removing a wall. During our surveillance, the suspect in the case was seen entering and leaving both sets of front and rear doors, proving, to our satisfaction and to the judge, that he lived there.
We selected one of the rear doors to the apartment as the place to make our entry as it afforded us the safest approach from the nearby parking lot. The suspect had been seen in the apartment only minutes before, so when we received no answer to our knock on the door and our announcement that we were police officers with a search warrant, we forced open the door and ran inside.
Immediately upon entering I could see something was amiss. The wall that had once separated the two apartments had been reinstalled: the two apartments that had been converted into one had been divided back into two. And we were in the wrong one.
Well, there was little time to stand around and ponder where we had gone wrong. We proceeded through the apartment from the back door to the front, exited, then repeated our knock-and-notice routine at the front of the apartment next door. In the end, the suspect we were after was arrested and the evidence we sought was seized. The suspect pleaded guilty, but not before some interesting court hearings at which was discussed the unconventional nature of the search warrant service.
In police work, as in all human endeavors, mistakes happen. Today in Indiana, officers making a similar mistake might find themselves in a gunfight with the occupants of a home they have mistakenly though lawfully entered. And under the terms of this new law, those occupants might kill a police officer and yet be vindicated in court. If they survive the encounter, that is.