Widespread use of no-knock search warrants in Monroe County raises constitutional questions

·9 min read

Sep. 21—ABERDEEN — Court documents and testimony suggest potentially widespread and abusive use of no-knock warrants in Monroe County, at least during the two-terms under former Sheriff Cecil Cantrell.

When sheriff's deputies raided the trailer home of Ricky Keeton on Sizemore Road between Amory and Smithville in October 2015, they served it as a no-knock raid. Those deputies claim they eventually announced their presence, but not until the moment a battering ram slammed into the door.

UNDER FIRE PART 1: The death of Ricky Keeton

Deputies then shot and killed Keeton after he allegedly fired a pellet pistol at officers.

Keeton's girlfriend, Wanda Stegall, was in the trailer bedroom during the raid. She has consistently maintained that deputies never verbally identified themselves. According to her account of that night, Keeton woke her after the pair had gone to bed and told her he heard someone outside. When he went to the door with a pellet pistol, just as deputies were staging on the back porch, Stegall believes Keeton thought intruders were breaking into the home.

A federal lawsuit filed by three of Keeton's daughters claims that both the search warrant and the use of force violated their father's constitutional rights.

With both Monroe County and former deputy Eric Sloan named as defendants, the federal lawsuit is currently scheduled to go to trial early next year in Greenville.

But Keeton's killing raises questions that reach beyond a single night in 2015. The Daily Journal has reviewed hundreds of pages of sworn testimony, court records and other public documents that suggest Monroe County has for years pushed the limits of the law in its use of a search warrant tactic that has become increasingly controversial.

Monroe Sheriff's Department heavily relied on no-knock raids for years

Sloan was head of the Monroe County narcotics unit at the time Keeton was shot, and he personally participated in the raid that killed him.

During his time as a deputy sheriff, Sloan said in a sworn deposition that he helped serve hundreds of search of warrants and could not recall a single such warrant served with a knock at the door.

"Most all narcotic search warrants are no-knock," Sloan said. "In Monroe County they are."

Sloan was a deputy sheriff from 2004 until December 2015. He told lawyers present at a 2016 deposition that, during his employment, deputies preferred to serve forced-entry raids in the dark.

"Most of the time, if we have a choice, we'd rather do it at night," Sloan said.

Jim Waide, questioning Sloan during the deposition on behalf of the plaintiffs, lingered on this point.

"So you go in when they're sleeping. That's customary?" Waide asked.

"Yes sir," Sloan said.

Another former narcotics officer, Tony Coxey — who was a deputy from 2007 to 2017 and died in 2018 — testified that he could only recall a few knock-and-announce search warrants during his tenure. The vast majority of the department's search warrants, he said, were no-knock warrants.

Judges never refused to approve a no-knock warrant when asked, Coxey said.

Robert Fowlkes — a former Monroe County justice court judge — similarly testified that he'd never declined to authorize a search warrant brought to him by law enforcement.

Chief Deputy Curtis Knight, who currently remains in that post, testified in 2017 that no-knock search warrants are used to preserve evidence.

"The no-knocks are mainly pertaining to narcotics because you — you're not wanting to give the person an opportunity to dispose of or destroy the evidence," Knight said.

In the Keeton raid, however, other measures were in place to preserve evidence. A pair of deputies were stationed by a sewer line to break it open just as the raid began to prevent anyone from flushing drugs down the toilet.

Supreme Court rulings require case-by-case justification for no-knock search warrants

In a 2017 deposition, the former sheriff linked no-knock search warrants with the belief that narcotics raids pose a particular risk to deputies.

"We just assume any person that's dealing in drugs is dangerous," said Cantrell.

But such an assumption is not a sufficient basis for a no-knock warrant under current precedent.

"There needs to be a specific finding that a no-knock is necessary because of danger to the officer or evidence destruction," said Christopher Slobogin, a law professor and director of Vanderbilt University's Criminal Justice Program.

Slobogin reviewed the Keeton warrant and said he didn't see such a finding.

A 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said that law enforcement officials may lawfully enter a home without knocking and announcing their presence only if a showing can be made that knocking would allow a suspect to dispose of evidence, flee or attack the officers.

But two years later, in Richards v. Wisconsin, the Court clarified its ruling: There is no categorical allowance for no-knock entry in drug cases, or in any other investigation.

Instead, a judge must determine, for each and every no-knock search warrant requested, that circumstances particular to that case justify no-knock entry.

Before raiding Keeton's home, a deputy submitted an affidavit to a judge requesting a search warrant, with an attached sheet detailing the circumstances. These documents do not request in writing a no-knock search warrant and fail to make any mention of particular circumstances unique to the planned Keeton raid, appearing to flout Supreme Court precedent.

The Richards v. Wisconsin precedent emerged in the civil litigation after defendants asked the court to issue a summary judgement in favor of the state.

Sharion Aycock, who was at the time chief judge in the Northern U.S. District Court, noted that neither the search warrant itself, the affidavit requesting the warrant, nor the attached circumstances document contained any "information relevant to the standard articulated in Richards."

Rather than the facts of circumstances of any particular case, deposition testimony by officers consistently offered the view that in Monroe County, forced-entry search warrants were essentially automatic in drug cases.

In response to questions, Sloan described no-knock search warrants as "standard procedure" in drug cases, including the Keeton raid.

"We went and got a search warrant from a judge, a no-knock search warrant, which is — in narcotics is almost a given," Sloan said in 2016, describing the Keeton search.

Defects in Keeton search warrant seen in other raids by Monroe County sheriff's department

In response to recent public records requests seeking search warrants linked to several key deputies across several years, Monroe County Justice Court Clerk Tina Morrow has produced only four.

She told the Daily Journal that a comprehensive, single repository of search warrants does not exist, as far as she knows, and could be spread across multiple courts, or still in possession of the originating law enforcement officer.

The warrants she has produced represent what she has found after what she called a comprehensive search of drug cases in Justice Court linked to several key narcotics deputies over a multi-year period.

The four warrants the Daily Journal obtained from Morrow date from 2009 to January 2021. These warrants repeat some of the potentially problematic features identified by Aycock and Slobogin with the Keeton search warrant.

The only mention of no-knock entry on any of the documents comes in the following language, repeated nearly verbatim on the final search warrant: "Affiant respectfully requests no-knock service of this warrant to maintain highest officer safety and evidence integrity."

And that very language may not even constitute judicial approval for a knock-and-announce procedure.

"The warrant does not explicitly say that it authorizes a 'no knock' entry," Aycock wrote in 2018 about very similar language used in the search warrant used to raid Keeton's home.

Current sheriff's office leadership says concerns about officer safety driving force behind no-knocks

After two terms of office, Cantrell was defeated in a Democratic primary in 2019. After the primary, but before his term of office ended, Cantrell resigned his post after the state Auditor found that the sheriff had used county prisoners to help assemble campaign signs.

While still in office, Cantrell met with members of the Keeton family after the fatal raid in 2015.

Those family members objected to the use of a no-knock search warrant, according to audio of that meeting obtained by the Daily Journal.

"What I don't think we understand is, why y'all had to go in that way," a Keeton family members says on the audio. "Why couldn't it be handled in a better manner?"

The speaker goes on to suggest that reaching for a weapon when awakened at 1 a.m. would be a normal reaction.

"Why couldn't you wait until the day?" another speaker asked.

Such criticisms have been raised across the country, especially following the 2020 death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky during the execution of a no-knock search warrant. A number of cities and states have restricted the use of no-knock search warrants. Mississippi has not.

Current Monroe County Sheriff Kevin Crook would not respond to repeated requests for an interview with the Daily Journal about the department's current warrant practices.

However, in mid-August, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office held a search warrant training session. A reporter with the Monroe Journal, which is owned by the Daily Journal's parent company, was present for that training.

Key SWAT deputies and leaders of the department emphasized officer-safety as a key issue for them as they consider search warrant practices.

Crook was among the law enforcement members at the training. He defended the use of search warrants against other tactics, such as using a traffic stop or some other method to arrest or detain a suspect away from their home.

"Why wouldn't a traffic stop be a better approach versus executing a warrant?" Crook said. "One, he's not going to take his drugs with him. Two, if it's a public place and we try to take this guy, and he decides he doesn't want to go, you put other people in danger."

Billy Richey, a leader on Monroe County's SWAT team, said the team doesn't kick down a suspect's door during the execution of every search warrant. Officers' safety is the primary consideration when deciding how to enter a property.

"We're going to look at it from all angles and make a decision like, 'This isn't worth our guys going into this; the dope is not worth us taking this chance,'" Richey said. "We don't get a no-knock warrant to preserve narcotics. Yes, that is the evidence and it does help, but that's not the sole purpose. It's for the safety of the guys."

Ray Van Dusen contributed to this report.


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