SALT LAKE CITY — Senate committee members took no action on a controversial bill Monday that would change laws concerning the use of forcible entry when serving search warrants or making arrests.
Members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee raised and heard concerns about the bill from residents and law enforcement officials, including the specifics of whether all or some officers would be required to wear body cameras during forcible entry raids, as well as what nature of evidence would justify a raid that would not require a knock-and-announce action prior to forcible entry.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, acknowledged the need for continued discussion about the bill’s specifics, so he refrained from requesting the bill to pass through the committee, urging further discussion and amendments.
“This is my 15th session, and I’ve learned that you can’t push a rope,” Urquhart said. “I would really rather have law enforcement’s collaboration, and I think I’ll get it. Everyone’s coming to the table in good faith in this.”
Urquhart said he’s met with numerous officers who have expressed concerns about national incidents that have involved forcible-entry raids.
“So this isn’t only to protect the public; it’s also to protect police officers and the image of police officers,” he said.
SB82, as it now stands, would rid evidence preservation as a reason to exempt officers from being lawfully required to announce and explain their presence before making a forcible entry.
The bill would raise the standard of evidence needed for a forcible entry to probable cause and require officers executing forcible entries to wear uniforms that clearly identify them as law enforcement officers, as well as body cameras that actively record through the duration of serving the warrant.
Additionally, the bill would prevent justice court judges from issuing search or administrative warrants, which was also a topic of debate among law enforcement officials and committee members.
After Monday's discussions, Urquhart said he's open to make adjustments to his bill, including the requirement of body cameras, and what would justify a no-knock raid, such as the nature of the evidence officers are seeking in the raid.
“If we’re going to go in after a small amount of drugs, a petty amount of drugs, which currently is permissible under Utah state law, my calculation is that it’s not worth risking so many lives,” Urquhart said.
That's why he hopes to “flesh out the standards” of the bill and what would constitute a significant reason for executing no-knock raids.
“We all have seen news stories (and) we read the paper where sometimes these things go tragically wrong, because it is a very dangerous situation for everyone involved, and so the intent of this bill is to establish baseline standards, best practices, when law enforcement in Utah will conduct no knock raids,” Urquhart said.
“I’m looking to this committee and members of the public and members of law enforcement to help me figure out when is it that we can do this very aggressive police tactic to go in after evidence,” he said.
Marina Lowe, ACLU of Utah legislative and policy counsel, said the bill may have been inspired by past instances of forcible entry, including the incident involving Matthew David Stewart, who killed himself in his jail cell after being accused of shooting at officers who raided his Ogden home in January 2012 to investigate an alleged marijuana growth operation.
Ogden officer Jared Francom was killed and five offers were also shot while serving the search warrant. Stewart had said his military training kicked in when he felt as though he was being invaded and needed to defend himself.
Lowe said the bill is making a commendable attempt at “striking the right balance between protecting officers and also the rights of individuals in their homes” during no-knock forcible entries.
“(Urquhart) has indicated there are a couple of points of contention that he want to continue to work on,” Lowe said. “From our perspective, we think some of these issues aren’t necessarily as problematic, but the legislative process is one of compromise, and so I understand that the senator wants to work on the question of what is the standard that the officer needs to present before they can get a no-knock warrant, and also consider when it is appropriate to knock down someone’s door.”
West Jordan Police Chief Doug Diamond said he and other law enforcement officials are eager to work with Urquhart to create a law that supports best practices.
"We’re anxious to work with him," Diamond said. "We’re ready to work with him, and I'd like to come up with language that, even though we may not agree on everything, but we can come to terms with and put into law."