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America Must Outlaw Nixon’s No-Knock Warrants
Nixon's "War on Drugs" continues to terrorize Americans; it's time to drive a stake through this 50-year-old legal Frankenstein's monster that has killed so many Americans for no good reason
All because Republican president and criminal Richard Nixon decided to create a phony national “moral panic” that would win him the 1972 election (it worked, by the way).
Binge-watch some cop shows from the 1950s till the early 1970s and you’ll see something very different from today’s SWAT teams executing an estimated 70,000 no-knock warrants every year. Back then, cops would knock on a door, the guy inside would say, “Do you have a warrant?” and the cops would either produce it or leave.
For those too young to remember, Nixon’s racist “War on Drugs” campaign strategy was the turning point when today’s abomination started. Prior to that neither SWAT teams nor no-knock warrants even existed in any meaningful way.
Nixon, elected in 1968 after sabotaging LBJ’s efforts to end the Vietnam War, intended to run for re-election in 1972. Yet by 1971 he and his war were increasingly unpopular, so he huddled with his top advisors Haldemann and Ehrlichman to come up with a strategy to win the upcoming election.
The product of those planning sessions burst into public view on June 17, 1971 when Nixon officially rolled out his brand-spanking-new “War on Drugs.”
Telling Americans that drug abuse both in Vietnam and here at home had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency,” Nixon started a brand new agency called the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention.
As the Nixon Foundation notes at their website, Nixon:
“…declared drug abuse ‘public enemy number one.’ ‘In order to fight and defeat this enemy,’ he continued, ‘it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.’ With that statement, the ‘war on drugs’ began.”
And, indeed, it took on the dimensions of a war, only this time a war against both the Constitution and the American people. Literally, as Nixon’s top advisor would later tell us.
The Constitution guarantees us a right to privacy and restates what had, in British common law, been historically called the “Castle Doctrine.”
Sir Edward Coke, in The Institutes of the Laws of England, laid it out in 1628: “For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge].” As I note in The Hidden History of Big Brother, Coke was citing a law ratified in 1275 by England’s King Edward III.
This idea goes way back. The Framers of the Constitution wrote it this way in the Fourth Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
But, taking a cue from Nixon, the early 1970s were filled with news stories, movies and TV dramas about police trying to arrest “drug dealers” who avoided prosecution by flushing their drugs down the toilet “just in the nick of time” when the police knocked on the door and announced themselves.
As a result, police departments started to imitate the “tough guy” cops in some of the shows by organizing SWAT teams and simply kicking in doors, a practice that was finally legalized by the Supreme Court in 1995.
And, predictably, as Nixon’s drug war moral panic kicked into high gear with massive media support, deaths of both drug users, cops, and innocent people began to mount up.
Just two years after Nixon’s proclamation, Andrew Malcolm wrote a 1973 article titled Violent Drug Raids Against the Innocent Found Widespread for The New York Times:
“WASHINGTON, June 24—Innocent Americans around the country have been subjected to dozens of mistaken, violent and often illegal police raids by local, state and Federal narcotics agents in search of illicit drugs and their dealers. …
“Such incidents have resulted in at least four deaths, including one policeman slain when a terror‐stricken innocent woman shot through her bedroom door as it burst open. In California one innocent father was shot through the head as he sat in a living room cradling his infant son. …
“In Los Angeles a veteran police officer says mistaken raids occur once or twice a month. In Miami complaints of police harassment on drug searches are so frequent that the Legal Services of Greater Miami can no longer handle the caseload. …
“The incidents also underline what some view as an inherent danger in ‘no‐knock’ narcotics raids, which were authorized for Federal agents by Congress in 1970.”
The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2006 that, “The number of no-knock raids has increased from 3,000 in 1981 to more than 50,000 last year.” Today the number is estimated to be well north of that number, at least 70,000 a year, although nobody is officially compiling the statistics.
No-knock warrants are an abomination.
They violate a 1000-year-old Anglo-American legal tradition of the right to be safe in your own home, they produce lifelong trauma in the innocent people who’re frequently the victims of them, and they put officers in unnecessary danger. And, of course, they lead to the deaths of innocent people like Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke.
To make it even worse, they’re 100% the result of a political scam run by Richard Nixon. As Nixon‘s right hand man, John Ehrlichman, told reporter Dan Baum:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. Do you understand what I’m saying?
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.
“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.“
And it worked:
More than half of all people killed during the execution of no-knock warrants are minorities, and Nixon’s drug war — carried on by every president since — birthed the modern-day for-profit prison system that lobbies for harsher laws and has destroyed so many lives.
Minneapolis has now, after this most recent violation of common standards of law and decency, banned no-knock warrants. As have three states as disparate as Oregon, Florida and Virginia, with none experiencing a sudden surge of crime.
After Nixon’s drug war went into hyperdrive, the Supreme Court put their stamp of approval on no-knock warrants. The first time was in 1995, when Clarence Thomas wrote the Wilson v Arkansas opinion saying explicitly that there is no 4th Amendment protection to be safe from police in your own home.
The Court doubled down in 1997s Richard v Wisconsin, although that decision slightly narrowed police powers by saying they must be limited to situations “where officers believe that evidence would be destroyed if advance notice were given.”
Thirteen states have now put this brutal policing tactic into law or their constitutions.
Because of these precedents, having woven Nixon’s drug war’s no-knock warrants into the legal fabric of our nation, the only solution now is for Congress to step up and ban them at the federal level.
Americans should feel safe in their own homes again and, particularly with more guns than people in this country, no-knock warrants unnecessarily put both cops and civilians in danger.
It’s 2022 and Nixon’s “War on Drugs” campaign strategy continues to terrorize Americans; it’s time to drive a stake through this 50-year-old legal Frankenstein's monster that continues to kill both civilians and cops and has been particularly brutal against minorities.
Oregon recently decriminalized all drugs, and marijuana is quickly being legalized state-by-state. As America winds down the legal, moral and political menace that was the Nixon campaign’s “War on Drugs,” we need to end its peripheral parts including for-profit imprisonment and no-knock warrants.
It’s time to end the police-state tactics and return to sanity. Congress must act and put into place a national ban on no-knock warrants.