In a case that mixed toilets and the Fourth Amendment, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against the controversial practice of "no-knock" searches in drug raids.
Some police say the searches prevent suspects from flushing evidence down toilets. Civil libertarians say the technique threatens privacy rights and the safety of both citizens and officers.
In a unanimous decision, the court made the rule clear in Florida: Police must knock and announce their presence before serving a search warrant, unless they encounter armed resistance, danger to occupants or determine evidence is being destroyed.
The case began Aug. 18, 1989 when Hillsborough sheriff's deputies, wearing fatigues, masks and helmets, stormed Earl Ray Bamber's home in Brandon. They set off a stun grenade outside as a diversion. As the officers rushed inside, Mrs. Bamber was convinced the family was being robbed. Two men doing work in Bamber's house were forced to lie on the floor at gunpoint.
Deputies found 31 grams of cocaine in Bamber's possession, but the trial judge suppressed the evidence because of the way deputies served the search warrant. The 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed, prompting the Sheriff's Office to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
"This wasn't close. This was a slam dunk," said Douglas Grose, Bamber's Tampa attorney. "This issue is still not resolved in all the states. The Florida Supreme Court is well-respected, so maybe it will have a good effect for other citizens."
The victory leaves Bamber, 46, off the hook on that case, but he has since had several other arrests, one as recently as December on charges of possession of marijuana.
Bamber, who lives now in Dover, remains bitter about the experience.
"It was like hell," he said. "Can you imagine someone jumping in your house, they all got masks on and guns out? It's terrifying."
Bamber said he owes thousands of dollars in attorney's fees related to defending the state's appeals in his case.
Florida law specifically requires officers to knock and announce their identity and intentions before serving a search warrant. But police in two areas of Florida had persuaded their appellate courts to uphold a general exception where police feared drugs might be flushed down toilets.
The high court said no-knock warrants "are disfavored because of their staggering potential for violence to both occupants and police."
Indeed, Congress passed a law allowing such searches in Washington, D.C., as part of President Richard Nixon's "War on Crime," in 1970. But the law was rescinded in 1974 after numerous instances of people being shot in unannounced raids and of agents being shot by people who thought they were being invaded by robbers.
In Bamber's case, a detective had sought a no-knock warrant, and interpreted the judge's warrant as authorizing a no-knock entry, though it did not specifically allow it.
Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Jack Espinosa said Thursday that the ruling will have no effect on department policy, which is to knock unless the specific exceptions under the law exist at the time the warrant is served.
In the Bamber case, Espinosa said, a workman came out of Bamber's house after the stun grenade exploded, just as SWAT deputies were about to knock.
"They don't know if this is an attack or what, so they grab him, and move right in," he said.