More than a year and a half after sheriffs nearly killed a toddler with a flashbang grenade during a no-knock raid based on bad information, a Georgia jury acquitted the only deputy to face charges tied to the episode on Friday.
It was before dawn when cops stormed Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh’s home in the spring of 2014, looking for a 30-year-old drug suspect. One of the officers chucked a flashbang grenade into a darkened room, where it exploded close to a playpen where 19-month-old Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh Jr. laid. The toddler was badly maimed by the explosion, and eventually survived after spending weeks in a coma recovering from multiple surgeries.
A grand jury decided not to charge the cops who actually took the door down and flung the flashbang. But former Habersham County Dep. Nikki Autry was charged with the federal civil rights violation of knowingly giving false information while seeking a search warrant from a judge. Autry signed her name to a vast exaggeration of what the department had done to verify that SWAT tactics were appropriate, prosecutors said.
But a jury rejected the charges Friday, finding Autry not guilty of all three charges brought against her. She had faced up to 10 years in prison because Bou Bou’s injuries trigger stiffer sentencing possibilities under the laws governing the Fourth Amendment rights of civilians. Autry’s attorneys say that deputies who testified against her were turning her into a scapegoat, and Autry herself told reporters after her acquittal that she has “never intentionally lied to a judge.” Autry quit the force after the raid and doesn’t want to return to law enforcement, according to the local NBC affiliate.
The raid epitomizes the most glaring abuses of the three-decade War on Drugs, as reason’s Jacob Sullum has noted. A novice informant told cops that somebody he knew had told him about doing a drug deal with a third person related to the Phonesavanhs. That dubious chain of circumstantial claims led officer to seek not a standard search warrant but a no-knock warrant. That decision guaranteed the kind of tactical smash-and-grab that makes much more sense for soldiers fighting al Qaeda than for rural cops looking for a small-time meth dealer at his mom’s house.
Overzealous search warrant activity is the defining characteristic of the drug war and resulting militarization of the policing business. SWAT teams were invented in the 1960s to respond to heavily armed criminals like bank robbers and hostage-takers. But today, these heavily armored crews have spread from cities to tiny localities where their expense is hard to justify and where there is almost zero actual need for them.
In part to cover their own costs, these rural SWAT crews have primarily been used to go after low-level drug suspects whose potential crimes are linked to the federal funding policies and asset forfeiture systems that have been used to finance the drug war since President Reagan launched it. At least 62 percent of all SWAT actions in 2011–2012 were to serve search warrants in drug cases, the American Civil Liberties Union has found. SWAT deployments for a search outnumbered those for barricaded suspects or hostage-takers by a four-to-one ratio from 1986 to 1998, University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologists have documented.
Violence against innocents is not the intention of this Apocalypse Now-style approach to minor search warrants, but it is an almost inevitable byproduct of it. Journalists have documented an immense number of cases similar to Bou Bou’s over the years, though they often feature less immediately sympathetic victims than a maimed toddler. As with other aspects of America’s drug war, the consequences fall disproportionately hard upon people of color.
Bou Bou’s mother believes that race was a factor in the Georgia jury’s decision to let Autry off the hook for the alleged inaccuracies in her affidavit. “I was the only person untouched in that house when they raided it. Why? Because I’m white,” Alecia Phonesavanh told the local FOX station. “Why did they target the Laotians and not me? Because I am white. Why did we not get a guilty verdict? Because she is white.”