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December 08, 2005

IF A COP BREAKS INTO YOUR HOUSE UNNANOUNCED, and you shoot him thinking he's a burglar, it's self-defense. But Radley Balko reports on a case of a wrong-house no-knock raid that has led to what sounds like a total miscarriage of justice:

As the raid on Smith commenced, some officers - including Jones -- went around to what they thought was a side door to Smith's residence, looking for a larger stash of drugs. The door was actually a door to Maye's home. Maye was home alone with his young daughter, and asleep, when one member of the SWAT team broke down the outside door. Jones, who wasn't armed, charged in, and made his way to Maye's bedroom. Because police believed Maye's side of the duplex was still part of Smith's residence, they never announced themselves. Maye, fearing for his life and the safety of his daughter, fired at Jones, hitting him in the abdomen, just below his bulletproof vest. Jones died a short time later.

Maye had no criminal record, and wasn't the target of the search warrant. Police initially concluded they had found no drugs in Maye's side of the duplex. Then, mysteriously, police later announced they'd found "traces" of marijuana and cocaine. I talked to the attorney who represented Maye at trial. She said that to her knowledge, police had found one smoked marijuana cigarette in Maye's apartment. Regardless, since Maye wasn't the subject of the search, whether or not he had misdemeanor amounts of drugs in his possession isn't really irrelevant. What's relevant is whether or not he reasonably believed his life was in danger. Seems pretty clear to me that that would be a reasonable assumption.

In a way, this is the flipside of the Miami airport shooting. And I regard the shooting of a cop in this situation similarly: It's a tragedy, but the risk is, and should be, borne by the person who's acting unreasonably. Here, it's the cop's. When you break down people's doors and charge in unannounced, you do so at your own risk, cop or not.

Radley has more reporting here, and observes:

Put yourself in Maye's shoes. You have no criminal record. You've done nothing wrong. In the middle of the night, in a bad neighborhood, you awake to find someone attempting to break down your door. The door flies open, and a man in black paramilitary gear comes storming into your bedroom, where your infant daughter also happens to be sleeping.

Not only is that set of circumstances "reasonable ground" to think that someone is about to do you "great personal injury," and that you're in "imminent danger" of said personal injury being accomplished, you'd be crazy not to take quick action to defend yourself.

The SWAT team was in Maye's home illegally. And they failed to exercise due dilligence in obtaining the search warrant, given that they were obviously unaware that the target of the warrant was a duplex with a second residence. These are facts.

If the facts are as he reports, this guy never should have been charged -- and he should have had a lawsuit (though those, unreasonably, are usually losers) against the police for breaking down the wrong door. The cop who was shot was the police chief's son. And there's a racial angle, too.

More here and here.

UPDATE: Reader Steve Alexander emails:

My brother and I (both military officers and strong police supporters) were just discussing "no-knock" raids last week. A citizen has every right to defend himself in his home to unknown intruders. Not too long ago, a family was the victim of home intruders posing as cops. I'd be hard-pressed to believe anyone barging in my home in the middle of the night, especially if I KNEW I wasn't a criminal. "No-knock" raids should be illegal in all 50 states.

Further, why doesn't the Hollywood crowd take up the cause of a truly wronged black man on death row, instead of real criminals like Tookie and Mumia?

Excellent question. Unlike those other cases, this seems like one without a political angle. It's unclear whether that will get it more attention, or less.

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