Utah bill would control forcible serving of search warrants

Jan 22 2014 - 6:15pm

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill the Libertas Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union's Utah chapter designed to add controls to the forcible serving of search warrants has been pre-filed with the Utah Legislature.

House Bill 70 is sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R- Santaquin, and Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, the Senate minority caucus leader.

"In an effort to better protect both police officers and the public at large, Libertas Institute has proposed reforms to Utah law regarding authorization over forcible entry warrants," Connor Boyack, institute president, said in a press release Wednesday.

The bill would establish a statewide standard for judges to follow to ensure that authority to enter a citizen's home by force is given only when absolutely necessary, he said. 

Boyack said the bill was created in collaboration with the Utah chapter of the ACLU and has received early support from legislators on both sides of the aisle.

The key portion of the bill would require judges to ask certain questions before authorizing forcible entry.

The goal, Boyack said, is "ensuring that police officers think about less violent alternatives to enforcing the law and that judges do not authorize such warrants except when circumstances require that officers invade a home."

In a Libertas policy analysis released with the bill, the institute points to a pair of Weber County raids as the impetus for the bill:

The Jan. 4, 2012, a search warrant served with a battering ram at the home of Mattthew David Stewart in Ogden left six officers wounded by gunfire, Weber-Morgan Strike Force agent Jared Francom fatally. Stewart was found dead in his cell of an apparent suicide last May while awaiting trial.

On Dec. 20, 2013 officers looking for a military deserter knocked at the wrong address in Ogden at 2 a.m. Officers with automatic rifles rushed the house when Eric Hill answered the door with a baseball bat. Police Chief Mike Ashment apologized for the incident and Mayor Mike Caldwell instituted a policy change requiring any armed serving of search or arrest warrants be cleared first by police brass of lieutenant level or higher.

Boyack said the bill does not forbid or substantially restrict forcible entry as a law enforcement tactic, but seeks to ensure it is used only when appropriate and as a last resort.

"We have been working for months to create language that is both reasonable and realistic," said Boyack. "We recognize that police officers often have a tough job, but we also affirm that government's role is to protect life, liberty, and property. These simple tweaks to the law will help strengthen that important protection."

Contact reporter Tim Gurrister at 801-625-4238, tgurrister@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @tgurrister.

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