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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Wrong House Raid in Georgia

     In Gwinnett County, Georgia, a suburban community of 700,000 within the Atlanta metropolitan area, narcotics officers had been watching a house in Lawrenceville for three months. Members of the county police department's Special Investigations Section suspected that the man living at 2934 Valley Spring Drive was selling methamphetamine. At 9:15 A.M. on December 9, 2008, 20 officers with the department's 60-member SWAT unit began making final preparations for a no-knock raid. Thirty minutes later, after a detective with the Special Investigations Section pointed out the meth suspect's house, the SWAT team moved in on the target. The officers didn't know it, but the detectives had sent them to the wrong house. The suspected drug dealer lived a few places down the street.

     The day after the raid, John Louis, the 38-year-old whose house the police wrongfully entered, described the intrusion to a television reporter: "They came in here and put guns on us. The house was full of police. I never had a gun in my face before...All I see is a bunch of police, guns drawn, yelling, 'Hands in the air! Hands in the air!' "

     When the SWAT officers broke down the front door, Heather Jones, John Louis's girlfriend who had been asleep with their three-month baby, stepped out of the bedroom in her nightgown. Police ordered her to the floor at gunpoint. The couple asked the police what they wanted and were told to shut up and remain still. The raid came to an abrupt halt when one of the officers, seeing the baby, realized they had broken into the wrong place. As the SWAT unit decamped to raid the suspect's house, one of the officers apologized for the intrusion and promised to have the front door repaired.

     In an interview with a TV correspondent the next day, a Gwinnet Police Department spokesperson pointed out that the narcotics officers had been watching the meth suspect's house for three months. In response to this, John Louis said, "If you had this house under surveillance for three months, why did you come here? You broke in and put all our lives in danger, and all you can say is you're sorry?" (Mr. Lewis was lucky to get an apology. That was unusual.)

     The police spokesperson, in explaining what went wrong, said, "Somehow there was an investigator that had been working closely with the case that...mistakenly pointed out the wrong house, the wrong location." When asked if the police department had any kind of policy regarding no-knock raids, the police representative replied, "We double check the address, there's a description of the location as well as an address of the house that we're looking at on the search warrant, and we always have someone double check that every time." (Always?)

   Three days after the raid, the commander of the Special Investigations Section, in a news release, announced that the detective who had directed the SWAT team to the wrong house had been transferred to the uniform division. Without identifying this officer, the commander characterized the incident as a "case of human error and not deliberate malfeasance on the part of the investigator."

     Had Mr. Louis, thinking that his home was being invaded by criminals, picked up a gun for self-protection, he would be dead. As long as the war on drugs rages on, and officer safety trumps all other considerations, SWAT teams will be deployed in low-risk situations. Non-violent criminal suspects and innocent people will continue to be traumatized, injured, and in some cases, killed.

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