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The form that Louisville, Kentucky, police officers use when they seek search warrants includes a list of possible justifications, such as the expectation that stolen property, tools of crime, or other evidence of illegal activity will be discovered. In one case recently highlighted by the U.S. Department of Justice, an officer checked “other” but wrote nothing on the three lines next to that option, where he was supposed to explain the reason for the warrant.
A judge nevertheless gave the officer permission to search a man’s home. That incident underlines a lesson that comes through clearly in a DOJ report published last week: The civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are meaningless without an infrastructure of accountability that ensures those promises are kept.
The 90-page DOJ report lays out a litany of outrageous police abuses in Louisville, including illegal searches, unannounced home invasions, excessive force, and retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment. Those abuses were tolerated and abetted by supervisors and judges who shirked their constitutional obligations.
In Louisville, the DOJ says, “search warrant applications routinely fail to demonstrate probable cause,” which requires “a reasonable belief, based on trustworthy information,” that police will find evidence of a crime. Affidavits commonly relied on boilerplate language instead of specific evidence, misused confidential informants, and failed to justify the breadth of the warrants that police were seeking.
Those deficiencies, which cut the heart out of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” might have been discovered by supervisors, in-house counsel, or prosecutors if they had reviewed the affidavits. But they did not, and judges rubber-stamped the warrants despite “glaring omissions.”
Police frequently were reckless in serving those warrants. They entered homes without announcing themselves or without giving residents enough time to respond, often at night, magnifying the danger that they would be mistaken for criminal intruders, with potentially deadly consequences.
Although Louisville banned no-knock warrants in 2020, officers retained the authority to barge into homes unannounced in “exigent circumstances,” a requirement that they often ignore. And although body cameras are widely available to Louisville officers, they were used to document just 10% of the residential searches that the DOJ examined.
The Fourth Amendment violations identified by the DOJ also included illegally prolonged, pretextual traffic stops and unjustified pat-downs of pedestrians. The report notes that officers “unlawfully stop, frisk, detain, search, and arrest people during street enforcement activities,” targeting innocent individuals without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
The DOJ found that Louisville officers suddenly and unnecessarily escalate police encounters and “routinely use force disproportionate to the threat or resistance posed,” including gratuitous takedowns, chokeholds, electric shocks and dog bites. These assaults against unarmed, nonresisting and restrained suspects look more like punishment for contempt of cop than the legitimate use of appropriate force.
In one representative incident, an officer encountered an intoxicated woman who was “screaming and crying while sitting on her friend’s lawn.” Within 90 seconds, he pushed her to the ground and held her there with his foot, saying, “I’ve had enough of you.”
After the wailing woman “tried to bite the outside of his shoe,” the officer flew “into a frenzy” and “struck the woman’s face over and over again with his flashlight.” Later he told a supervisor that he had “beat the s—” out of the woman — who was 5 feet tall and weighed all of 110 pounds — and lost track of how many times he hit her.
“Despite using clearly excessive force,” the DOJ says, “the officer faced no discipline.” That outcome was typical, the DOJ found: Use-of-force investigations were “perfunctory” and biased, absolving police of responsibility for appalling brutality.
During the last six years, the report notes, Louisville’s government “has paid more than $40 million to resolve claims of police misconduct.” That financial cost is just the tip of the awful iceberg that formed in an environment coldly indifferent to flagrant constitutional violations.