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Pinellas sheriff narrows search warrant policy, citing risk to deputies, public

The new policy, effective Tuesday, will make the execution of search warrants by forced entry a last resort.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Tuesday he is narrowing his agency's policy for executing search warrants. Here, he speaks at a news conference in 2019.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Tuesday he is narrowing his agency's policy for executing search warrants. Here, he speaks at a news conference in 2019.
Published Sep. 1, 2020
Updated Sep. 1, 2020

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Tuesday that he narrowed his agency’s policy around serving search warrants.

The new policy, effective Tuesday, will make the execution of search warrants by forced entry a last resort, the sheriff said. It requires that deputies obtain permission from a division commander before they carry one out in that manner, and that commanders may only grant one when “the risk of harm ... has been weighed against other possible methods of serving the search warrant,” according to a copy of the revised policy.

Forcing entry on a location through, say, kicking down a door or using a battering ram — a practice known as a “dynamic” entry — puts both deputies and anyone inside the home at risk.

“Nobody’s life is worth drugs,” Gualtieri said. “It’s not worth anyone getting hurt or killed over it.”

Related: Once reluctant, Pinellas sheriff exploring body cameras for deputies

The policy doesn’t restrict no-knock warrants, in which officers charge in without knocking or identifying themselves as law enforcement. That practice has drawn scrutiny since the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., in which a judge signed a warrant specifying that officers could enter Taylor’s home without knocking first, according to The New York Times.

The orders were then changed to require officers to knock and announce themselves as police. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, has said that he and Taylor didn’t hear police identify themselves. Walker, not knowing who was barging in, fired his gun in self defense. Police fired back, striking and killing Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician.

FILE - In this July 6, 2020, file photo a ground mural depicting a portrait of Breonna Taylor is seen at Chambers Park, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. Americans' suggestions of suitable statues for President Donald Trump's planned National Garden of American Heroes are in, and they look considerably different from the predominantly white worthies that the administration has locked in for many of the pedestals. Lehigh County, Pennsylvania Commissioner Amy Zanelli, suggested George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans whose killings by police sparked massive street protests. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
FILE - In this July 6, 2020, file photo a ground mural depicting a portrait of Breonna Taylor is seen at Chambers Park, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. Americans' suggestions of suitable statues for President Donald Trump's planned National Garden of American Heroes are in, and they look considerably different from the predominantly white worthies that the administration has locked in for many of the pedestals. Lehigh County, Pennsylvania Commissioner Amy Zanelli, suggested George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans whose killings by police sparked massive street protests. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) [ JULIO CORTEZ | AP ]

Florida generally prohibits police from obtaining a no-knock warrant ahead of time. But officers can decide to use that tactic in the moment — if they articulate why.

Gualtieri’s policy keeps the option open for extreme cases, he said. But limiting the opportunity for dynamic entry also limits the potential for no-knock warrants, he said.

“I’m not saying what happened in Taylor case — a dynamic entry shoot-out — can’t happen here, but what I can say is that the chances of that are very minimal under our policy,” the sheriff said Tuesday during a news conference.

When deciding whether a dynamic entry is appropriate, commanders will think about factors including the purpose of the warrant, whether the suspect is armed or has a propensity for violence, and when the suspect is or isn’t home.

Then, if deputies do get approval for a dynamic entry, they should make every effort to serve the warrant when deputies are “reasonably certain” no one is inside the location, the policy says. That will likely involve watching the location in advance to determine who may live there — with special mind paid to children, seniors and people with special needs — and when they come and go.

In lieu of a dynamic entry, deputies could knock on the door and wait for someone to answer, or wait for the suspect to leave and confront them outside of the home or business.

Over the last six years, six of 81 Sheriff’s Office raids, or about 7 percent, were dynamic entries. Years ago, dynamic entries made up the vast majority of cases, the sheriff said.

A surprise raid does have its benefits. Gualtieri gave the example of a drug trafficker seeing or hearing the police and flushing dope down the toilet before they can get inside. But they can also go awry.

During a 2005 drug raid, a Pinellas deputy shot 19-year-old Jarrell Walker in the back, killing him. The case sparked community outrage and protests in St. Petersburg. More recently, in 2014, Tampa police officers shot and killed 29-year-old Jason Westcott, who they suspected was a drug dealer, while serving a warrant at his home. Officers found just 0.2 grams of marijuana, worth about $20.

“If I’ve got to knock on the door,” Gualtieri said, “and I don’t care whose door it is — if it’s a family member of a cop or a family member of a suspect —and I’ve got to tell them that their loved one was killed as a result of us executing a search warrant, and they ask why, it better be worth it.”

Related: Pinellas sheriff to Rays: Breonna Taylor tweet was ‘just wrong’ and ‘reckless’