July 7, 2003

Jonathan Lippman
Chief Administrative Judge
Office of Court Administration
25 Beaver Street
New York, N.Y. 10004

Dear Judge Lippman:

We write to express our concerns about the role of New York State courts in the issuance of “no knock” search warrants to the New York City Police Department, particularly when those warrants are based on information provided by a confidential informant. In light of published reports emanating from the May 16 death of Harlem resident Alberta Spruill and recent City Council testimony from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, we believe that the courts may need to re-examine the manner in which they are handling search-warrant requests from the NYPD.

As you presumably know, the Criminal Procedure Law allows no-knock warrants to be issued only in unusual circumstances and only with appropriate supporting documentation. Similarly, the federal and New York State Constitutions impose substantial limits on the authority of courts to issue warrants based upon information provided by confidential informants.

Given these restrictions, one would expect that relatively small numbers of search warrants issued to the NYPD would be no-knock warrants and that even fewer would be no-knock warrants based on confidential informants. However, on June 4 Commissioner Kelly testified at a City Council hearing that the “vast majority” of the nearly 13,000 search warrants obtained by the NYPD between January 1, 2001 and April 30, 2003 were “no knock” warrants. (Subsequent comments by the Commissioner at the hearing suggested that virtually all of these warrants in fact were no-knock warrants.)

The Commissioner further testified that 10% of the search warrants did not yield any contraband, suggesting that nearly 1300 of the warrants issued by the courts during this 28-month period may have been flawed. And in response to a question from a Council member, Mr. Kelly was unable to identify how many, if any, NYPD search warrant requests were rejected by the courts.

Given these disclosures and given the trauma that can result from a flawed, no-knock raid, we believe it imperative that the courts scrutinize their procedures for handling NYPD requests for search warrants. In particular, we urge you to consider undertaking the following:

  • Distribute to all judges currently handling NYPD requests for search warrants information reminding them of controlling legal standards governing requests for no-knock warrants and governing requests based on information from confidential informants;
  • Assess and upgrade all training provided to judges concerning the issuance of no-knock search warrants, particularly those based upon information supplied by confidential informants; and
  • Institute improved record-keeping systems so that the courts will have up-to-date information about search warrants issued to and executed by the NYPD. If such a system were in place, administrative personnel would be able to identify persons involved in the judicial process -- be they judges, district attorneys, or members of the NYPD -- who may need supplemental training in the handling of search-warrant requests.

To the extent the courts already have taken steps in response to the Spruill tragedy, we ask that you notify us of those actions. In addition, we ask that you provide us with information about any future reforms you expect to implement in light of this incident and the related disclosures about flawed search warrants.

Sincerely,

Christopher Dunn
Associate Legal Director

Donna Lieberman
Executive Director

c: NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly