Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and three county prosecutors acknowledged Thursday that no-knock warrants are very rare in the state, but say the tool shouldn’t be banned, just clarified.
Yost and prosecutors from Franklin, Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties held a press conference Thursday announcing a push for changes to the statute regarding no-knock search warrants.
“The no-knock is designed for rare occasions when there’s a serious problem, a serious issue of officer safety where if you knock on the door and say ‘police,’ they might answer the door with a burst of automatic weapons fire,” Yost said.
With that in mind, Yost plans to send a letter to leaders of the Ohio General Assembly and Gov. Mike DeWine asking them to clarify aspects of the no-knock warrant statute.
Yost said Ohio’s status as a Castle Doctrine state also complicates things, because the doctrine allows Ohioans to use force in their home if they feel it is being threatened. The new measure would require proof of a “substantial risk” of harm to officers, rather than the statute’s current language of “risk of serious physical harm.”
“There are counties in Ohio where ‘there’s a gun in the house’ applies to a majority of the houses, and that doesn’t seem to be enough of a showing to warrant the extraordinary remedy of eliminating the knock-and-announce requirement that’s in the statute,” Yost said.
The measure would prohibit no-knock warrants in misdemeanor drug possession and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia without more serious charges attached.
Officers executing the warrants would have to wear “readily identifiable” markings, identify themselves as soon as possible, and wear and activate body cams if their department equips them. He called the changes “more nuanced and more surgical” than an outright ban.
“But it does a better job of balancing the need for law enforcement in the case of serious crimes to be able to execute search warrants safely against known dangerous suspects, and the right of the community to reside peaceably in their homes,” Yost said.
Though they stressed the importance of no-knock warrants, the prosecutors and Yost also proved the rarity of the use of these warrants in the state.
Of the hundreds of search warrants Cuyahoga County issues per year, County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley said the county averages “less than one” no-knock warrant.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said Columbus probably uses more no-knock warrants than Cleveland, but it still represents “a small percentage of cases.”
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters said the Cincinnati Police Department has asked for less than 10 no-knock warrants per year, and have served less than five.
“The sheriff’s office said in the last 10 years, if they’ve executed 20 no-knock warrants in the last 10 years, that would be a lot,” Deters said. “They just don’t do it.”
Still, the measure is necessary in some situations, the prosecutors said, such as large drug cases or sex trafficking.
“When law enforcement needs that tool, it is critical that it be available to them for… all law enforcement personnel at the scene who are executing those warrants,” O’Malley said.
The no-knock warrant received national attention after the death of Breonna Taylor as a result of a police raid, while she slept in her Louisville home. Yost said the Taylor case was “an element of the conversation,” but the existence of the Castle Doctrine highlighted the need for discussion on no-knock warrants.
Oregon and Florida have banned the practice, and cities in Ohio have discussed a ban. Cincinnati’s city council found that its charter did not allow them to intervene in the police department’s business, for which Deters said “thank God for this.”
“The police in this state and certainly in Hamilton County are not busting down doors, acting like a bunch of cowboys with these no-knock warrants,” Deters said.
Yost says Ohio is different than other areas of the country, and therefore should be treated independently.
“You can’t import things that you see from other states into Ohio,” Yost said. “This is Ohio and frankly, I think we do things a lot better here than in many other states.”
Not included in the proposal is a requirement that no-knock warrants be conducted by special resource teams or other specifically trained units. Without equal resources in all 88 counties, prosecutors said that wouldn’t be possible.
“But (the proposal) gives a good framework for even smaller coutnies that don’t have a tactical unit available,” Deters said.
The measure comes as several other law enforcement-related bills await the legislature’s consideration. Yost said this measure “would be a ripe amendment” to one of those bills.