Salt Lake-area police chiefs and SWAT team members say the no-knock search warrant is one of the best tools available for seizing dangerous suspects and evidence.
West Valley City's May 30 raid that left a SWAT officer injured and a man dead points out what can go wrong during the execution of a no-knock warrant. The public clamor that has followed has piqued the interest of law enforcement officials who defend the use of SWAT teams and no-knock warrants. They say they're the safest and most effective way of apprehending a potentially dangerous suspect while keeping incriminating evidence intact, especially when narcotics are involved.Mark Joseph Pyle, 32, 4507 S. 3600 West, had a felony conviction on his rec-ord and was therefore forbidden, by law, from possessing firearms or ammunition. But police conducting a narcotics investigation believed Pyle was heavily armed. An informant had told police Pyle had two M-16 automatic rifles.
According to police, Pyle shot at two officers, hitting one's bulletproof vest and injuring the other in the leg with a .45-caliber handgun when West Valley's SWAT team broke into Pyle's house at about 11:45 p.m. May 30. One of the officers shot back and fatally wounded Pyle.
Pyle's wife and two small children were in the house when the gunfire exchange began and Pyle was killed. That circumstance has perhaps drawn the most public opposition to the use of no-knock warrants. Opponents to the raid said police should not have entered the house when the children were there. Police say Pyle endangered the children by initiating the shooting and add that the loaded shotgun police say was found under Pyle's bed added a dangerous element to the home environment.
Since the raid, the Deseret News has contacted the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department, the state Department of Public Safety and police departments in Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Murray, Midvale, Sandy, South Salt Lake, West Jordan and Draper. All of those agencies use no-knock search warrants, and all either have a SWAT team or have access to one through another agency.
"People who have drugs almost always have guns," said Draper Police Chief Hans DeHaas. "On most drug raids you would want to get a no-knock search warrant because of the nature of the thing."
Police obtain the warrants by convincing the county attorney's office that an extraordinary danger exists at a suspect's location. The attorney's office prepares the warrant for a judge's signature. Without the judge's approval, there is no warrant.
Legal requirements make warrants unusual
Murray Police Chief Ken Killian said people tend to forget the attorney's office and judge are involved in the decision of whether to issue a no-knock search warrant. "We don't just go through the phone book and say `hey, I think we'll hit this guy's house.' " Having a judge involved checks the likelihood that police would use a no-knock warrant as a brutality tool.
The judge also has final say in whether the police raid can take place at unusual hours of the day or night, Killian said.
Police prefer serving the warrants late in the evening or in the early morning when people may be asleep or have their guard down. "That's what a no-knock search warrant is all about - you go in when people aren't standing there at the door with a weapon," Killian said.
West Valley's most recent SWAT experience pointed out that innocent people are often in harm's way when a suspect fights back. Would police do better by waiting for suspects to go to work or at least be in their cars before trying to make an arrest?
Salt Lake Police Sgt. Scott Atkinson, who spent 10 years on the city's SWAT team, said the potential for others to be hurt is greater when the person is out in the open. Let a suspect get in a car and a chase could endanger other motorists or pedestrians. Arrest someone at work and risk the chance that evidence at the house will disappear by the time police get back to the house with a search warrant, Atkinson said.
Suspects most often taken at home
Earl Morris, the former commander and a current member of the state's Department of Public Safety Special Operations Team, said the standard procedure for executing a no-knock warrant is to try to isolate a suspect at home "where he is in his environment and where he can do as little damage to the outside world as possible."
West Valley police located several M-16 ammunition magazines in Pyle's house but have not found the two M-16 automatic rifles an informant said Pyle had, according to West Valley Police Chief Dennis Nordfelt. On the narcotics end, they only found a small amount of marijuana in the house.
"Sometimes you come up dry. You're putting your trust in people who are also criminals and feeding you information at the time. Sometimes they're real reliable and sometimes they're not," Morris said.
Nordfelt said he is withholding some information about the raid because members of the Pyle family have threatened to sue the police department over the incident. If they sue, all of the rationale and evidence police used to decide to conduct the raid would be used as evidence in court.