Pursuing drugs and guns on scant evidence, D.C. police sometimes raid wrong homes — terrifying the innocent
Saturday, March 5th, 2016
Photo by Jabin Botsford, The Washington Post
“They came in like Rambo,” Sallie Taylor, 63, recalls of the night in January 2015 when nine D.C. police officers broke through the door of her Northeast Washington apartment to search for drugs. Taylor found herself facing a shotgun. Police thought they were searching the home of a woman arrested on a drug charge the previous night, but Taylor did not know the woman.
Sallie Taylor was sitting in her apartment in Northeast Washington one evening in January 2015 watching "Bible Talk" when her clock fell off the wall and broke. She turned and looked up. Nine D.C. police officers smashed through her door, pointed a shotgun at her face and ordered her to the floor.
"They came in like Rambo," said Taylor, a soft-spoken 63-year-old grandmother who was dressed in a white nightgown and said she has never had even a speeding ticket.
The heavily armed squad thought they were searching the residence of a woman arrested two miles away the previous night for carrying a half-ounce vial of PCP.
Taylor, who did not know the woman, was terrified. Trembling, she told police that the woman did not live there. Officers spent 30 minutes searching the house anyway, going through her boxes and her underwear drawer. They found no drugs and left without making an arrest.
"But police are not civil libertarians, and these types of warrants are counter to what the Fourth Amendment is all about."
— Eugene O'Donnell, NYU
The search warrant executed at Taylor's apartment cited no evidence of criminal activity there. Instead, in an affidavit to a judge, police argued that they should be able to search for drugs there based on their "training and experience" investigating the drug trade. They relied on an address they found in a court-records system for the woman arrested with PCP.
A Washington Post review of 2,000 warrants served by D.C. police between January 2013 and January 2015 found that 284 — about14 percent — shared the characteristics of the one executed at Taylor's apartment. In every case, after arresting someone on the street for possession of drugs or a weapon, police invoked their training and experience to justify a search of a residence without observing criminal activity there. The language of the warrants gave officers broad leeway to search for drugs and guns in areas saturated by them and to seize phones, computers and personal records.
In about 60 percent of the 284 cases, police executing the warrants found illegal items, ranging from drug paraphernalia to guns, The Post found. The amounts of drugs recovered were usually small, ranging from residue to marijuana cigarettes to rocks of cocaine. About 40 percent of the time — in 115 cases — police left empty-handed.
In a dozen instances, The Post found, officers acted on incorrect or outdated address information, subjecting such people as Taylor to the fright of their lives.
Almost all of the 284 raids occurred in black communities. In 276 warrants in which The Post could determine a suspect's race, three originated with arrests of white suspects. The remaining 99 percent involved black suspects. In the District, 94 percent of people arrested in 2013 for gun or drug charges were black, according to FBI crime data.
The 284 warrants reviewed by The Post differ from the usual pattern of police warrants. D.C. police have said at public hearings that the typical raid happens only after undercover officers or confidential informants have purchased drugs or guns from inside a home or police have conducted surveillance there.
The searches are occurring at a time when public attention is highly focused on interactions between police and blacks nationwide, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and concern about the aftereffects of the drug war. In Maryland this month, lawmakers proposed legislation that would require police to reimburse residents for damage to their property when police execute a warrant and find nothing. In Philadelphia, police were criticized in October by the executive director of the city's citizen review board for harsh treatment of residents during raids.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from "unreasonable searches," generally requiring government agents to obtain a warrant from a judge by showing they have probable cause to think that they will find a specific item at a specific location. In recent decades, police have been given wide latitude by the courts to conduct searches aimed at removing drugs and guns from the streets.
Attorney Alec Karakatsanis, of the nonprofit group D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law, said warrants that rely on training and experience as justification for a search subject the black community to abusive police intrusion based on flimsy investigative work. In the past two years, he has filed seven civil rights lawsuits in federal court challenging D.C. police's practice of seeking search warrants based solely on an officer's training and experience.
"They have turned any arrest anywhere in the city into an automatic search of a home, and that simply cannot be," said Karakatsanis, who spent three years studying the issue, starting when he worked at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. "It would work a fundamental change in the balance of power in our society between government agents and individual rights."
D.C. police, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the D.C. Attorney General's Office defend the use of warrants based on police training and experience.
In a written statement to The Post, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier did not distinguish between warrants based primarily on training and experience and those based on more-extensive investigation. She said that all of the warrants the department executed last year were constitutionally sound and that each warrant was reviewed by a police lieutenant as well as prosecutors and ultimately approved by a judge.
"In the vast majority of those warrants, contraband and evidence was recovered in furtherance of criminal prosecutions, and gave MPD [the Metropolitan Police Department] the ability to bring closure to multiple victims of crimes in our city," she said. "During that same time frame, MPD received very few complaints regarding the execution of those warrants."
Lanier said residents who are dissatisfied with police should speak with a supervisor at the department or the Office of Police Complaints. "We remain committed to unbiased constitutional policing," she said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a written statement that its prosecutors carefully review thousands of warrants each year to determine whether they meet the standards for probable cause.
"Probable cause merely requires that the facts and circumstances available to the officer provide the basis for a reasonable person to conclude that evidence of a crime exists at a location," the statement said. "Although no system is perfect, the law and the multiple layers of review provide safeguards to minimize the potential for errors."
Lee F. Satterfield, chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court, declined to comment, citing pending cases.
Karakatsanis studied a year of warrants in which police searched for drugs based on training and experience and found that they recovered drugs one-third of the time. In response to Karakatsanis, then-D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan argued in 2014, "While Plaintiffs treat this success rate with contempt, finding drugs in one-third of similar police searches is strong evidence of probable cause."
Nathan also pointed out that the Supreme Court has held that probable cause cannot be reduced to a "precise definition or quantification."
In January, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg allowed the first of Karakatsanis's cases to go forward, saying that "a talismanic invocation" of "training and experience" does not automatically satisfy constitutional requirements.
The raids for which police do more investigative work appear to bring better results, The Post found. In February 2015, police searched a house in Southeast and seized an AK-47 assault rifle, two semiautomatic handguns and 100 grams of marijuana. In April 2014, police in Northwest found 25 grams of heroin, 330 grams of marijuana, a revolver and an assortment of ammunition.
They also found $60,000 in cash.
Perhaps the most successful raid among the 284 identified by The Post occurred after police made a traffic stop and found a revolver and four hollow-point bullets in the glove box. A search of the suspect's house turned up two shotguns, a semiautomatic handgun and an assortment of ammunition. The suspect received a 10-month suspended sentence for firearm charges and servedno time in jail.
Most of the time, police find much less.
Police told a judge that their training and experience investigating drug cases led them to think that they would find evidence of a PCP-trafficking operation when they raided the house of Margaret Brown in April 2014.
Brown's son had overdosed on PCP at a building across the street from her apartment in Northwest Washington. A vial containing a small amount of the drug, an eighth of an ounce, was found in his clothes. Police arrested him for possession of PCP, a felony, and he was later sentenced to four months in jail.
The evening after his arrest, police in body armor burst through Brown's front door.
"They slammed me to the ground," said Brown, 47, who had just returned home from her job in billing at a hospital and has never been convicted of a crime. "They were fully armed - guns pointed in my face like there was a major drug deal going down."
Brown said she sat handcuffed while police went through her belongings, knocking over furniture and even opening an urn containing her mother's cremated remains.
The search turned up a partially burnt marijuana cigarette. Brown told police that it belonged to her son, who she said has a marijuana card allowing him to legally possess the drug for medical reasons.
They arrested her for misdemeanor possession, and she spent five hours in jail.
Eight weeks later, prosecutors dropped the charge against her.
Relying on others' word
The warrants The Post identified began with arrests made during traffic stops or street encounters where officers observed suspicious behavior. In all of those cases, suspects were caught with illegal guns or amounts of drugs sufficient for charges of possession with intent to distribute — usually an ounce or more of marijuana or several grams of cocaine.
During the arrests, police obtained suspects' addresses by relying on the person's word, a driver's license or databases from law enforcement, schools, utilities or courts. After receiving the approval of the U.S. Attorney's Office, usually within a day, police then secured warrants by going to a Superior Court judge with a sworn affidavit making their case that they had probable cause to think they would find drugs, guns or other criminal evidence at the residences.
The warrant gives police 10 days to conduct the search and details when and how the raid is to be carried out.
Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu, The Washington Post
D.C. officers return to their car after trying to find the source of a marijuana odor on Clay Terrace in Northeast Washington. Some search warrants have been issued even when no criminal activity at the targeted location has been witnessed.
The responsible judge — the duty rotates among Superior Court judges — must decide whether the information would allow a person of “reasonable caution” to believe he or she is likely to find evidence of a crime during the search.
"Police are going to push the limit," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who is also a former NYPD officer and prosecutor and has worked as a police academy instructor. "But police are not civil libertarians, and these types of warrants are counter to what the Fourth Amendment is all about."
Such warrants, O'Donnell said, can easily be abused.
"It's a mass-produced, search-and-recovery operation. It's an assembly line. It's not a progressive policy, and it imperils police and people alike," he said.
Academic experts said the weight of such warrants falls disproportionately on minority communities. Andrew Crespo, a law professor at Harvard, recently studied D.C. warrants and found them almost exclusively executed in black communities.
One of Karakatsanis's clients is Shandalyn Harrison.
On April 5, 2013, police pulled her ex-boyfriend over for having an obstructed license plate and found five ounces of marijuana, a misdemeanor. He had two prior misdemeanor convictions for selling marijuana. Police got an address for him in Northwest from his suspended D.C. driver's license and a utility listing from December 2012, according to the affidavit.
But the house was rented to Harrison, and she said she had previously told police that he had never lived there.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on April 18, as Harrison watched a rerun of "Grey's Anatomy" with two of her daughters, she glanced up from the television to see a line of 20 police officers assembled on the porch of her house. She opened the door.
"Everyone was running in. No one told me what was going on," Harrison, 35, later told The Post.
Harrison's 11-year-old daughter was taking a shower when an officer pushed aside the curtain and pointed a gun at her, according to the mother and daughter. Police also held Harrison's 21-year-old younger brother, Sterling, at gunpoint, Harrison and Sterling said.
"What they did was not right," said Harrison. "I work hard to take care of my daughters and to protect them and raise them right, but they treated us like we committed a crime."
Harrison said it took the family days to clean up after the raid. At one point, an officers told the children that their father "did not care about them" and said the search was happening only because he was a "bad man," according to the lawsuit.
In November 2013, the ex-boyfriend pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
He was sentenced to serve 20 days in jail and paid a $50 fine.
In August 2014, Harrison filed a federal lawsuit against D.C. police.
Attorneys for the District say the case should be dismissed because a judge approved the warrant.
The wrong address
Patrice Sulton, a lawyer who chairs the legislation committee for the D.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that addresses in the D.C. court system can be unreliable. In a report in April, the department's Police Complaints Board expressed concern "about the lack of verification of address information in warrants executed by MPD officers."
Failure to properly verify an address led police to the home of Patricia Dandridge on Jan. 27, 2015. She returned from work to find her apartment in Southeast ransacked. The door was beaten in and her bed frame was broken, she said. Clothes and personal papers were strewn across the floor.
"I thought I'd been robbed, but my neighbor told me it was the police," said Dandridge, 45.
"They have turned any arrest anywhere in the city into an automatic search of a home, and that simply cannot be.”
— Attorney Alec Karakatsanis
On the kitchen counter, she found a copy of a D.C. police search warrant. Three officers had forced their way in to look for firearms. They left empty-handed.
The warrant was based on a drug complaint at a housing complex in Southeast more than five miles from Dandridge's apartment, according to the affidavit police used to justify the search.
Police called to the complex had arrested a man, who fled when they arrived. After a brief struggle with the suspect, Christopher Palmer, police found a handgun nearby on the ground.
Officers told a judge that they needed to search Palmer's apartment for evidence proving that the gun was his. Palmer gave his address as Apartment 102 in a building in Anacostia, according to the police affidavit. Police said they confirmed the address with a probation supervisor, Warren Leggett, who said Community Supervision Officer Melissa Shelton had visited the apartment earlier in the month.
Shelton declined to comment, referring a reporter to the general counsel of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, who said that the agency is prohibited from releasing information to the public about people on probation.
Palmer lived down the hall with his parents in Apartment 103.
Dandridge lives in 102.
"103 does not look like 102," Dandridge said. The apartments are on opposite ends of the building.
After the raid, Dandridge was furious. She said she contacted Sgt. Jaron Hickman, one of the officers who conducted the search.
He told her that they'd arrested a man they believed was her son and received a warrant to search for guns and ammunition, she said.
Dandridge told him that it couldn't have been her son.
"My son is deceased," she said.
Hickman declined a request for an interview.
Dandridge said that for weeks, she pressed police for compensation for the damage. She said they owed her at least $1,200.
She submitted a claim to the city's Office of Risk Management. She said she ultimately received a check for $260.
D.C. prosecutors indicted Palmer on firearm charges and two counts of assault on a police officer. In December, a jury acquitted him of the firearm charges but found him guilty of the assault charges. He received a 180-day suspended sentence.
Among the few who succeeded in getting police to pay for damage done during an errant raid are David Cranor, a satellite engineer, and his attorney wife.
Cranor wrote about the 2009 raid of his home on Kentucky Avenue in Southeast on his blog on the Greater Greater Washington website. He said police spent 45 minutes disassembling steel bars on his back door while trying to execute the search.
The warrant was based on a traffic stop of two suspects: a female driver and her son. The young man was charged with possession of an illegal firearm, according to the warrant, and told police that he lived at the Kentucky Avenue address. Police said his mother verified the address, which was also checked in a pretrial-services database intended to monitor court appearances.
The young man had been arrested in 2004, when his family lived at the house. Cranor and his wife bought the house in 2007.
The city initially refused to pay for the damage to Cranor's back door, which he said cost $3,140. In March 2010, the couple, then in their 30s, sued police. When it became evident that the case would go to trial, Cranor emailed Lanier seeking a resolution.
The next morning, Lanier wrote to say she was getting involved, he said, and the city agreed the following day to pay for the repairs.
"A slow, mysterious bureaucratic process is not a productive way to handle these kinds of situations," he wrote in his blog in 2011.
Marietta Robinson said that police relied on outdated information about her grandson to obtain a warrant in 2010 to search her house in Northwest. Police stopped her grandson after hearing him curse loudly while he was standing in the courtyard of a building down the street from her home. They arrested him for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, and found 18 grams ofmarijuana in his pocket, a little more than half an ounce. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute.
Police said that he gave them Robinson's address, which appeared as the grandson's address in several other databases.
But Robinson, 62 at the time, said her grandson, then in his late 20s, had not lived with her since 1987.
When police arrived, Robinson put her 13-year-old shepherd-pit bull mix, Wrinkles, in a bathroom and allowed officers to conduct their search. She said that a police officer opened the bathroom door and shot the dog, and as the animal ran into the living room, several more officers opened fire, hitting the dog 13 times, according to a lawsuit she filed. Blood splattered across her artwork and photographs. Robinson said the officers threw bedsheets and clothing on the floor to soak it up. Robinson said she was forced to wait outside for four hours during the officers' search.
Police did not find drugs or other contraband. Paperwork documenting the results of the search list only "drug paraphernalia (empty ziploc with residue)."
Last March, a federal judge dismissed Robinson's lawsuit against police, saying that the officers used reasonable force in killing an aggressive dog.
Robinson has appealed the ruling.
Outdated information also figured in the case of Rameka Waters, 24, who passed drug testing and a background check for her job as a licensed home-health aide. But a close friend has a long history of mostly misdemeanor arrests for drugs, dating back to the 1990s. Several years ago, he used her address in Northeast to receive mail from the courts.
In April 2014, police pulled over a car, in which the friend was a passenger, on a seat-belt violation. Officers said they smelled marijuana and found an ounce of the drug in a plastic bag. The man admitted that he intended to sell the drugs, and he gave his address as Waters's apartment in Northeast, the warrant states.
After he was arrested, Waters saw police sitting outside her four-unit apartment building, where she lived in a unit on the second floor. She said she told detectives that he had used her address in the past but that he did not live there anymore.
A few days later, as she was leaving to take her daughter to school, she opened the front door to her apartment building and was met by a dozen police officers. Waters said she gave them her key to open her unit.
They found nothing.
"They told me I should be more careful about who I let use my address," she said.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against her friend. A month after the search, police arrested him again on drug charges. They searched a home a block away from Waters's apartment and found 29 grams of marijuana and five small plastic bags of crack cocaine. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor drug charges in that case and received a 60-day suspended sentence and six months of probation.
It's 'like they didn't have' rules
Sallie Taylor still can't understand how police got it wrong.
The search of Taylor's apartment in January 2015 on the second floor of a four-unit building on 36th Street in Northeast began with an arrest two miles away. Tia Jackson, 34, was charged with sexual solicitation. A search of her handbag turned up a half-ounce vial of PCP, according to the affidavit police filed to obtain the warrant.
Before the raid, police said they corroborated an address for Jackson at 36th Street in the pretrial services database and unspecified "law enforcement databases." In addition, Robert M. Van Dyke, the lead investigative officer in the case, stated that he had firsthand knowledge of the residence.
"Your affiant has been inside of 181 36th street, NE," Van Dyke said. "This area is known for prolific narcotics use, trafficking, and is responsible for habitual narcotics complaints from the community."
Van Dyke did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
The address had once belonged to Jackson's ex-boyfriend, court records show. In 2013, Jackson was charged with attacking the man there with a knife. He obtained a court order prohibiting her from coming to the residence after the assault. The charge against Jackson was later dismissed.
Jackson ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge in her 2015 arrest.
Taylor had moved into the apartment in April 2014. Her sister remodeled it for Taylor, who was returning from taking care of her grandchildren in Colorado while her son was in the military. The apartment seemed perfect. Her daughter and grandchildren lived in a unit on the first floor.
After the raid, a repairman patched her door with a thin piece of plywood and some drywall screws. Taylor and her daughters went to the 6th District police station, filed a complaint and requested that the door be repaired.
"It made me sad. I had respect for the police, but it was like they didn't have any rules," she said. "It's obvious they should have checked things out before they did this."
When a search based on erroneous information occurs, police rules require the department to provide an explanation and "repair the damage as soon as possible."
A year later, Sallie Taylor is still waiting to hear from them.
This story was produced in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Students Mariam Baksh, Miranda Strong, Christina Animashaun, Meldon Jones, Katie Le Dain, Ke (Amber) Liu, Samantha Hogan and Kate McCormick contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly defined the probable cause standard as requiring information that would allow a reasonable person to conclude that police are more likely than not to find evidence of a crime. The Supreme Court has held that probable cause cannot be reduced to a precise definition or quantification, and requires only “the kind of fair probability” on which reasonable people act. It has not insisted on proof that evidence is more likely than not to be found.