Drug Task Force Officer Denied Qualified Immunity For Violating Citizen's Rights With Illicitly-Obtained No-Knock Warrant

by Tim Cushing
Feb. 06, 2014

The law enforcement community and their love of no-knock warrants is starting to cost them. Multiple lawsuits have been filed over the past several years because of these tactics and just last month, a cop was shot dead by a homeowner defending himself against armed attackers who bashed in his door unannounced at 5:30 in the morning. The sick twist to that last incident is that the homeowner is now charged with capital murder, an offense that is punishable by death in Texas.

Now, another suit stemming from a no-knock warrant has gone badly for the law enforcement officer behind the raid. Michael Riley, an investigator for the Rensselaer County (NY) Drug and Gang Task Force is now facing the possibility of a jury trial, all without the safety net of qualified immunity. According to the 2nd Circuit Court's opinion, this is how the no-knock raid went down.
On July 3, 2008, at approximately 6:00 a.m., McColley was awoken in her home by the sound of the City of Troy Police Department Emergency Response Team ('ERT') knocking down her door and the explosion of a flash-bang grenade. Dressed in all black, wearing face masks, and carrying automatic weapons, the members of the ERT screamed for McColley to get on the floor, but as there was not enough space for her to lie on the floor, a member of the ERT instead shoved McColley face down onto her bed. As she had been roused from sleep, McColley was clad in only a T-shirt and underwear. She repeatedly requested to cover herself but was repeatedly denied.
This raid in search of crack cocaine was based on a "confidential informant's" statement that he had visited that particular address "twenty or thirty times" during the previous six months to make drug deals. The task force placed the house under surveillance to verify the informant's claims but noted no drug-related activity. Riley then ran a background check on the house's listed occupant, Ronita McColley, which came up clean. The report indicated she had no criminal background and, additionally noted that a child resided in the house with her.

Riley then acquired a no-knock warrant based solely on the informant's unverified claims, omitting everything the task force had observed (that being "nothing") ass well as the results of the background check. Judge Pooler dissembles exactly how Riley lied by omission to obtain this warrant.
For each of the search locations with the exception of McColley’s home, Riley identified the resident individual and described his or her ties to drug dealing and criminality. Riley never mentioned McColley’s identity, lack of criminal history, or even the fact that there was a resident who lived at 396 First Street—as opposed to the apartment being a location exclusively used by Stink in his drug dealing enterprise. In the warrant application, Riley also made no mention of the fact that surveillance had been conducted and yielded no evidence or even suspicion of narcotics or other criminal activity…

While it is indeed the case that where a warrant “does not report a prior conviction for a particular crime, the magistrate assumes for purposes of determining whether the government has carried its burden that no such conviction exists,” Walczyk, 496 F.3d at 161, the pertinent omission here was not merely McColley’s lack of criminal history. Rather, McColley herself was omitted entirely from the application. The issuing judge did not have the benefit of assuming that “no such conviction exist[ed]” because he was not informed that anyone other than Stink, who was the identified target of the drug investigation, resided in or maintained the first floor apartment at 396 First Street.
Riley, on the other hand, fully knew that McColley, an individual with no criminal history and no purported ties to the targets of the drug investigation, lived there with her child. Especially in the face of Riley’s inclusion of the identity of the residents for each of the other apartments and their present connection to the drug trade, the omission of McColley’s existence is all the more glaring. As drafted by Riley, with no mention of McColley, the warrant application makes it appear to the issuing magistrate that Stink was the only individual with custody and control of 396 First Street. If the residents of 396 First Street were properly identified, a reasonable issuing judge would have questioned the assertion that Stink had “custody and control” over the apartment.
Not only did Riley omit McColley's very existence, but he covered up other areas where evidence lacked. Pooler attacks Riley's double-standard on submitting supporting facts in his warrant applications.
While the police may not have been required to corroborate the CI’s assertions, once they undertook this surveillance and observed no such criminal activity, this lack of corroboration should have been included in the warrant application. The materiality of this information is underscored by the common sense observation that if the surveillance had yielded evidence of criminality, that information certainly would have been included in the warrant application and deemed to have been damning. The mere fact that the outcome of the surveillance was not the one the police would have preferred does not render the information immaterial.
These omissions are what cost Riley his immunity in the first place. The lower court determined these factual omissions raised sufficient Fourth Amendment questions that the county and its employee could not be granted immunity, which the defendants sought through a motion for summary judgement. This was denied and the immunity yanked, prompting the appeal to 2nd Circuit Court. This appeal has now been denied. Despite Pooler's enumeration of Riley's wrongdoing, the appeal is mainly denied on technical grounds (i.e., lack of jurisdiction).

The case is now being sent back to the lower court for a jury trial. McColley still has a chance to hold the county and Riley accountable for violating her Fourth Amendment rights.

And what did Riley's task force secure with its illicitly-obtained no-knock warrant?
The search of McColley’s home did not uncover any money, weapons, drugs, drug related paraphernalia, or any evidence of criminality of any kind. The ERT took only a National Grid electric and gas bill and a registration bill for Hudson Valley Community College as fruits of the search.
Three bills from an residence noted on the warrant application as a "stash house" and all based on the claims of a known criminal who would tell the police anything to stay out of jail and a cop who simply left out any info that would have made a no-knock warrant harder to obtain. CI's suddenly don't look all that "informative" when you depict them like any cop or DA would if they were on the stand rather than running "controlled buys" for their handlers. And the cop himself isn't looking any more trustworthy than his sources.

Read the case: Raid (PDF)

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