Restoring Faith in Judicial Warrants

On August 23, the New York Times reported that former police detective Kelly Goodlett mislead a judge who, based on the information she provided, authorized the no-knock search warrant. Those actions led to the execution of the warrant that resulted in the murder of Breonna Taylor. As of September 6, former detective Kelly Goodlett pleaded guilty in federal court to helping falsify a search warrant that led to the death of Breonna Taylor.

The Importance of Search Warrants

Search Warrants are an important procedural step. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides American citizens the protection of being secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects. Without a valid Search Warrant, search and seizure by the government is unlawful. 

Anyone who is not a lawyer and has not had contact with the criminal justice system probably does not know what an Affidavit for a Search Warrant looks like. There’s no reason you should. 

An Affidavit for a Search Warrant can be as simple as a two page fillable PDF, which does not seem like much, given the enormity of the consequences they can have. That said, the two-page form is often presented to a judge along with several pages of narrative attached. It’s not that a longer application means a better one. I’d take short application containing the truth over a long one that includes factual inaccuracies. 

Standards for Obtaining Search Warrants

What’s the standard for preparing a good request to obtain a Search Warrant? The legal answer: it must establish probable cause. But the practical answer: it presents an objective reporting of verifiable and relevant facts. The warrant issued for Breonna Taylor contained no factual information and was based on no evidence.

Getting the Search Warrant application process right is required for effective and truthful execution of the law. Motions to Suppress are common in criminal cases. Recent research has found that an analysis of prevailing suppression motions can help law enforcement officers avoid common mistakes.  

My preference would be to rely on research as opposed to tip sheets for “creating an outstanding warrant application every time”. A tip sheet seems to oversimplify the process. 

Search Warrants have implications for the lives of human beings.  Law enforcement would be well served to ensure that the professional effort that goes into each application for a Search Warrant is commensurate with the impact that warrant, when executed, could have on a citizen’s life. This, unfortunately, was not the case for the officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor.

Members of law enforcement themselves remind the public they are “just human beings” and can make mistakes. But when dealing with the life of an individual, there should be no room for errors. Recognizing a mistake is a good first step. It should be followed by recognizing the dangers that mistake creates.  

Like it or not, what law enforcement does, chooses not to do, or forgets to do, impacts the lives of human beings. And the American justice system maintains that those human beings are presumed innocent until proven guilty. This was not the case for Breonna Taylor.

I’m not suggesting law enforcement officials always have an easy job. They don’t; policing can be a high stress job. But the fact remains: deciding on a profession is a choice. Once that choice is made, being a professional becomes a responsibility. Along with that responsibility comes consequences should professionalism not be executed.

Root Cause

We don’t know what lead Ms. Goodlett to mislead the judge, whether it was based on prejudice or incompetence. Nevertheless, it may be possible to extract some good from her confession.  If nothing else, her confession allows us to explore the root cause of the problem. 

First, she may have been negatively impacted by cognitive bias – the tendency to believe a crime was committed before it is actually proven.  An unfortunate cognitive bias among police stems from prejudice and discrimination. Cognitive bias can cause law enforcement to look almost exclusively for confirming evidence and stop looking for any evidence inconsistent with their theory of the crime.  There’s a logical explanation for this: our brains want to make complicated matters more simple. A bias rooted in discrimination runs rampant through law enforcement making it difficult to eliminate, which has led to numerous innocent lives lost at the hands of these police officers.

While some psychologists assert we can mitigate cognitive biases through debiasing training, others think that cognitive biases are hard-wired and learned behaviors exacerbated by extreme prejudice. The forever optimist, I’m going to go with the idea that they can be overcome through intentional efforts to be more aware, embrace the opposite, gather multiple perspectives and look for disconfirming evidence.  This, however, is not going to be an easy job and may require a complete reform of police as prejudice and bias run deep in law enforcement.

Second, the stress of the job may have been affecting Goodlett’s health and wellness. Psychological stress can lead to poor decision making and poor professional judgement. For those in law enforcement, poor decisions and poor judgement, can lead to loss of life, such is the case for Breonna Taylor. By implementing additional requirements for police officers, the psychological acuity and health of there officers would come into question less.

Goodlett knew that the claims presented to the judge were false, yet she did nothing to correct the inaccurate information, confirming her bias and incompetence. 

If Goodlett was open to accepting necessary psychological supports maybe she would have made better decisions. Had other officers stepped stepped in to confront Goodlett, Breonna Taylor may still be alive. Better decisions could have prevented the unnecessary death of Breonna Taylor. It could have also prevented the extreme trauma and collateral damage her friends, family, loved ones, and community experienced. 

Third, maybe Goodlett needed additional training. Continuous professional development that ensures law enforcement officials can accurately differentiate between a reasonable suspicion and probable cause can help avoid similar catastrophes that result in loss of life.  Professional development that promote better processes and decision making are likely to be much more effective than tip-sheets.  

No Real Remedies

Surprisingly, the United States criminal justice system does provide some remedies when law enforcement obtains a search warrant under false pretenses. These include evidence suppression, case dismissal, criminal charges, and disciplinary actions. 

None of these remedies, however, will bring Breonna Taylor back to life. None of those remedies dull the effects of the terrifying and traumatic moments Kenneth Walker experienced the night Breonna Taylor was killed. None are adequate for the extreme disregard for human life shown by these officers.

The events that led to the killing of Breonna Taylor provide a painful reminder that much needs to be done in order to reform the police and provide additional training to mitigate cognitive bias . On the other side of every procedural step in a criminal investigation –  there is a human being who is as error prone as the rest of us.  Police, prosecutors, investigators, and others have a responsibility to approach criminal investigations in a way that recognizes and respects the fragility of the human lives that are affected by their work. 

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect every person and every professional will do everything right every time; however, police are the exception. When dealing with people’s lives and being responsible for the fate of citizens, there is no room for error.

There are likely many ways to accomplish improved outcomes in law enforcement. I will offer just one.  Consider applying the ethical and professional standard of do no harm that governs medical professions to law enforcement. Making every officer’s primary concern be “do no harm” could lead to a greater sensitivity to the life and death nature of the work. To accomplish this, the responsibility to hold law enforcement accountable falls on the citizens and the government.

Law enforcement officers routinely make decisions that affect the lives and wellbeing of others. A job like that is hard and demands both professional and ethical accountability, neither of which were executed during the unlawful raid that resulted in the killing of Breonna Taylor.