Breonna Taylor raid puts spotlight on officers who lie to get search warrants

Protesters gather in downtown Louisville, Ky., on Saturday, March 13, 2021, to mark the anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder in a botched raid by Louisville police officers. (Xavier Burrell/The New York Times)

The day before Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by cops at her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, a detective tried to persuade a judge that Taylor’s ex-boyfriend might be using her home to hide money and drugs.

The detective, Joshua Jaynes, said the ex-boyfriend had been sending packages to Taylor’s apartment, and even claimed to have proof: a postal inspector who had confirmed the shipments. Jaynes described all of this in an affidavit and asked a judge for an arrest warrant so officers could break into Taylor’s home late at night before drug dealers had a chance to remove evidence or run away. The judge signed the order.

But this week, federal prosecutors said Jaynes had lied. It was never clear if the ex-boyfriend was receiving packages at Taylor’s home. And Jaynes, prosecutors said, had never confirmed as much with any postal inspector. As outrage over Taylor’s death grew, prosecutors said in new criminal charges filed in federal court, Jaynes met with another detective in his garage and they agreed on a story to tell the FBI and their own colleagues to cover up the statements. false and misleading statements made by the police. to justify the raid.

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Amid the protests over Taylor’s killing, much of the focus has been on whether the two officers who shot him would be charged. But the Justice Department focused most of its attention on the officers who obtained the search warrant, highlighting the problems that can occur when judges authorize searches based on facts that police may have exaggerated or even fabricated.

“It happens a lot more often than people think,” said Joseph C. Paituce, a defense attorney and former prosecutor in Ohio. “We are talking about a document that allows the police to enter the houses of people, often minorities, at all times of the day and night.”

Taylor is far from the first person to die in an authorized police operation over what prosecutors said were police misstatements.

In Houston, prosecutors charged a police officer with falsely claiming an informant had bought heroin from a home to obtain a search warrant in 2019; Officers killed two people who lived there during a shootout as they attempted to execute the arrest warrant, and only after that did police chief at the time, Art Acevedo, say there were “material falsehoods or lies” in an affidavit from the arrest warrant. to the raid. The officer pleaded not guilty and the case is still pending.

In Atlanta, police officers broke into a home and shot and killed a 92-year-old woman, Kathryn Johnston, in 2006 after an officer lied on a search warrant affidavit about an informant buying drugs at her home.

And in Baltimore, a federal judge sentenced a detective to 2 1/2 years in prison last month after prosecutors said he lied in a search warrant affidavit about finding drugs in a man’s truck to justify a search of the man’s motel room.

Judges often rely solely on the sworn narrative of police officers requesting warrants, which means police can conduct potentially dangerous searches targeting innocent people before their affidavits are called into question.

The Supreme Court has ruled that when police knowingly or recklessly include false statements in search warrant affidavits in cases where there would not otherwise be good cause, the recovered evidence cannot be admitted in court. . False statements often come to light if arrests are made, as defense attorneys challenge search warrants in court.

Several flawed affidavits may never be closely scrutinized, legal analysts say, because the defendants agreed to plead guilty for other reasons.

In Louisville, Thomas Clay, an attorney involved in the Breonna Taylor case, knows the issue from both sides.

Clay and a colleague, David Ward, once represented Susan Jean King, a slim-built, one-leg amputee who was accused of shooting an ex-boyfriend to death in her home and then dumping his body in a river.

“This was his theory,” Ward said of the detective taking on the investigation as a cold case some eight years after the murder. “It was physically impossible for her to commit the homicide, drag her body out of her house and into her non-existent car, and then take this large 189-pound man and throw her body over a bridge into the Kentucky River”.

King’s attorneys claimed the detective falsely implied in at least one of the search warrant affidavits that a .22 caliber bullet found on the floor of King’s home was one of the bullets that killed the man.

But it had already been established that the man died from .22-caliber bullets that lodged in his head without exiting, King’s attorneys said, arguing that the detective’s claim was implausible. A judge agreed, saying the detective had omitted exculpatory evidence from his search warrant affidavits.

Nonetheless, King pleaded guilty to second-degree involuntary manslaughter in Alford, to which he pleaded guilty while maintaining his innocence, and was serving more than five years in prison when a man admitted to the murder. She was finally exonerated.

In 2020, the state agreed to pay King a $750,000 settlement for malicious prosecution. Through his attorney at the time, the detective, who had already retired from the force, denied any wrongdoing.

Now, Clay represents Jaynes, the detective accused of lying to get Taylor’s house search warrant.

“Search warrants are always fair game to look at, and should be looked at,” Clay said, though he declined to discuss the Jaynes case.

Jaynes pleaded not guilty to federal charges Thursday, saying he relied in part on information from another officer when preparing the affidavit.

Officers who provide false information under oath when preparing search warrant affidavits may cut corners, Clay said, because they believe they already know the outcome of the case but don’t yet have enough evidence to support the warrant.

“The most extreme example is when they’re just dishonest, even though they’re under oath,” Clay said.

Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner, said the consequences of lying about a search warrant could be serious.

“It’s tragic when you see police falsify information to get a search warrant, and it’s also silly,” Davis said. “Each one of those search warrants can turn into a disaster.”

In Taylor’s case, prosecutors said another detective, Kelly Goodlett, who was ordered fired by the department Thursday, also added misleading information to the affidavit, saying Taylor’s ex-boyfriend had recently used her address as his “current home address.” “. Prosecutors accused Goodlett of conspiring with Jaynes to forge the warrant.

Jaynes admitted that he did not personally verify the information on the packages with a postal inspector. He has said that a sergeant told him about the packages and he believed that was enough to support his claims in the affidavit.

“I had no reason to lie in this case,” he told a Louisville police board he was considering firing last year.

However, in the federal indictment against Jaynes, prosecutors charged that this claim was also false and that the sergeant had told Jaynes twice that he was unaware packages were sent to Taylor’s home for her ex-boyfriend.

The judge who signed the warrant for Taylor’s apartment, Judge Mary Shaw, declined to comment through an assistant Friday, saying she may be called to testify in the criminal case against the officers. Shaw is up for re-election in November, and The Louisville Courier Journal reported that she was the only one of the 17 regular judges on the Jefferson Circuit Court who faced a challenger for her seat.

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