Cops, Not Robbers: The Clash Between No-Knock Warrants and the Castle Doctrine

The use of no-knock warrants has increased exponentially over the last few decades, highlighting a fatal clash between no-knock warrants and the castle doctrine.

The killing of Breonna Taylor has sparked public outcry and has thrust two competing legal principles – the no-knock warrant and the castle doctrine – into the public eye.  Law professor Michael Mannheimer noted in an article with the Washington Post that a gunfight can occur between the police and a homeowner and “no one will be held criminally responsible” in jurisdictions that authorize no-knock warrants and recognize the castle doctrine.

“A no-knock warrant is a search warrant authorizing police officers to enter certain premises without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose prior to entering the premises.”

Under common law, the police are required to announce their authority and purpose before forcibly entering a private dwelling to execute a search warrant.  In North Carolina, under N.C.G.S. 15A-401(e)(1)(c), an officer executing an arrest warrant must “give[] . . . notice of his authority and purpose” unless doing so would “present a clear danger to human life.” And under N.C.G.S. 15A-249 and N.C.G.S.15A-251, an officer executing a search warrant must do the same.  A no-knock warrant, however, dispenses of this common law and statutory requirement.  A no-knock warrant is a type of search warrant that authorizes police officers to enter homes to search for evidence or arrest individuals without first knocking and announcing their presence.  A no-knock warrant is exactly what the name suggests, permission for the police to enter a residence without knocking or announcing their authority.  No-knock warrants are issued in situations where the police have reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence under the particular circumstances would be dangerous, or that it would allow for the destruction of evidence.[2]

As PBS notes in a recent article, the use of no-knock warrants has drastically increased over the last several decades due to the War on Drugs, “a series of federal and local policies aimed at cracking down on recreational drug use.”  The rationale behind the no-knock warrant, according to Walter Signorelli, an adjunct professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is that no-knock raids create an element of surprise that is designed to allow law enforcement to “disrupt criminal activity without giving a perpetrator time to react.”

According to Peter Kraska, a professor with the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, “municipal police and sheriffs’ departments used no-knock or quick-knock warrants about 1,500 times in the early 1980s.”  Today, the estimated number of no-knock warrants issued yearly ranges from 20,000 to 80,000.[3]

“A lawful occupant within his or her home . . . does not have a duty to retreat from an intruder . . .”

The castle doctrine states that when a person is within his or her home, there is no duty to retreat before using reasonable force – including deadly force – in self-defense.  The primary rationale for the castle doctrine is that “a man’s house, however humble, is his castle, and [in] his castle he is entitled to protect against invasion.”[4]  Most states have adopted some version of the castle doctrine, but the laws vary significantly from state to state.

For example, North Carolina has adopted a broad version of the castle doctrine, codified by N.C.G.S § 14-51.2.  The statute states in relevant part that “a lawful occupant within his or her home, motor vehicle, or workplace does not have a duty to retreat from an intruder[.]”  Not only does the statute permit the use of deadly force in one’s home, but it also extends to automobiles and the workplace.

North Carolina’s castle doctrine does not apply, however, in two situations (1) when the intruder is a law enforcement officer who identifies themselves and enters a home in the lawful performance of official duties; or (2) the homeowner “knew or reasonably should have known” that the intruder was a law enforcement officer in the lawful performance of official duties.

“‘[A]t least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died’ as a result of surprise entries carried out by SWAT teams.”

One does not need to be a legal expert to understand that there is a dangerous overlap between no-knock warrants and the castle doctrine.  Since the proliferation of no-knock warrants in the 1980s countless civilians and law enforcement officers have been killed carrying out no-knock warrants.  A study by the New York Times revealed that from 2010 to 2016, “at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died” as a result of surprise entries carried out by SWAT teams.

The deadly scenario is not merely a hypothetical, but rather has been illustrated by countless The typical scenario is as follows: The police execute a validly authorized no-knock warrant at 2 A.M., while the homeowner sleeps peacefully in her bedroom.  When the homeowner is awakened by the sound of a battering ram breaking down her front door, she reasonably believes that an intruder is breaking into her home.  In response, the homeowner grabs her legally registered handgun from the nightstand and fires a warning shot at the front door.  The police respond by spraying the room with bullets, killing the homeowner instantly.

North Carolina’s castle doctrine, like other states, But, because the homeowner did not reasonably know that the intruder was a law enforcement officer, he cannot be held criminally liable for the use of deadly force in protecting his home.  And the police are entitled to use deadly force when they have first been threatened with deadly force.  As a result, a gunfight occurs and “no one will be held criminally responsible.”  This, of course, is a dangerous and certainly unforeseen consequence of executing no-knock warrants in castle doctrine jurisdictions.

“[M]any police chiefs have begun to recognize the dangerous conflict that exists between castle-doctrine laws and no-knock warrants – and [have] sharply reduce[d] the use of those warrants.” 

In an article with the Washington Post, Chuck Wexler of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum noted that “many police chiefs have begun to recognize the dangerous conflict that exists between castle-doctrine laws and no-knock warrants – and [have] sharply reduce[d] the use of those warrants.”  For example, after the killing of Breonna Taylor, the Louisville metro council passed an ordinance called “Breonna’s Law,” which bans the use of no-knock warrants and requires police officers to wear body cameras while executing search warrants.  Many other cities have followed suit, including Charlotte, North Carolina; Indianapolis, Indiana; San Antonio, Texas; and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

As of right now, only Florida and Oregon have banned the use of no-knock warrants at the state level.  Tennessee State Senator Raumesh Akbari said that she plans on proposing legislation that would require police officers statewide to knock and announce their presence before entering a home.

At the federal level, Democrats and Republicans have submitted competing proposals on police reform.  The Democratic proposal, named the “Justice in Policing Act,” would, among other things, “ban[] no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level and condition[] law enforcement funding for state and local governments banning no-knock warrants at the local and state level.”  The bill was introduced on June 8, 2020, passed in the House on June 25, 2020, and is currently awaiting Senate approval.  The Republican proposal, called the “JUSTICE Act” would merely discourage, but not ban no-knock warrants.  The proposal would require federal, state, and local law enforcement to submit reports for each no-knock warrant executed, and would withhold “federal funding to departments that allow the tactic or fail to submit reports,” according to an article by the Washington Post.  Ultimately, the JUSTICE Act was introduced in the Senate, but did not receive enough votes.

“. . . the United States is trending towards backpedaling police power and the use of no-knock warrants . . .”

Now that the fatal consequences of executing no-knock warrants in castle doctrine jurisdictions have been increasingly highlighted, it seems that the United States is backpedaling police power and the use of no-knock warrants in favor of protecting the castle doctrine.  It is uncertain as to whether and when the no-knock warrant will be completely abolished, but the current trend in law certainly points to a drastic decrease in its use.

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/no-knock_warrant.

[2] Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U.S. 385, 394, 117 S. Ct. 1416, 1421 (1997).

[3] Brian Dolan, TO KNOCK OR NOT TO KNOCK? NO-KNOCK WARRANTS AND CONFRONTATIONAL POLICING, 93 St. John’s L. Rev. 201, 215 (2019),

[4] State v. Kuhns, 260 N.C. App. 281, 282, 817 S.E.2d 828, 829 (2018) (quoting State v. Gray, 162 N.C. 608, 613 S.E. 833, 835 (1913)) (brackets omitted).

[5] Candice Norwood, The War On Drugs Gave Rise To ‘No-Knock’ Warrants. Breonna Taylor’s Death Could End Them, June 12, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/the-war-on-drugs-gave-rise-to-no-knock-warrants-breonna-taylors-death-could-end-them.

Carly Amendola
About Carly Amendola (1 Articles)
Carly Amendola is a second-year law student at Campbell University and serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Carly grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Political Science. At Campbell, Carly is involved with the Moot Court team and the Death Row Visitation Project. Carly also spent the Fall 2020 semester working for Judge Allegra Collins at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Carly has a strong passion for social justice and interested in pursuing a career in criminal law after graduation. Carly is a huge fan of Diet Coke, Criminal Minds, and dogs.