Privacy SOS

Botched SWAT raid on MA family raises question: Should cops be able to raid your house based on the word of a single informant?

Marianne Diaz woke up to the sound of Worcester SWAT officers and Massachusetts State Police detectives smashing in the front and rear doors of her apartment. It was 5:30am on Wednesday, August 19, and hot. Diaz had slept naked, and that’s how the police found her when they barged into her bedroom pointing long guns, sporting helmets and crouching behind large police shields. Her 7 year and 18 month old girls were terrified: the elder daughter was "freaking out,” Diaz told a local reporter, while the baby “was just shaking, and she couldn’t stop.”

“Stop (expletive) crying and take care of your (expletive) kids,” Diaz said one of the cops told her.

The officers did not immediately let Diaz put clothes on, instead summoning a female officer to search her. When she finally arrived, Diaz said, the female cop wondered aloud why Diaz needed to be searched; she was naked, after all. “Search her anyway,” one of the cops reportedly said. The female police officer did as she was told: she patted down Diaz’ naked body and told her to spread her legs.

The cops didn’t find what they were looking for—in between Ms. Diaz’ legs or anywhere else in the apartment—which included a man named Mr. Jackson and two guns. But that the police left empty handed is entirely unsurprising, given that the man they were looking for did not live at the apartment and had no relationship with Ms. Diaz or her roommates.

How could this have happened? According to the police affidavit to support the search warrant application on Ms. Diaz’ home, the problem began with the word of a confidential informant. For reasons as complex as they are deeply ingrained in the US criminal system, that one person’s word alone set in motion the events which culminated in the traumatic raid on Ms. Diaz’ home.

According to the police affidavit used to obtain the no-knock search warrant, a confidential informant told a state trooper that Mr. Jackson lived at the apartment, where he recently showed the informant two firearms. The informant, the police affidavit states, “has been involved in the use and procurement of illegal narcotics and therefore has occasion to associate with individuals in the procurement and distribution of illegal narcotics.” One doesn’t often hear police officers entreating one to trust someone’s word by virtue of their drug use and association with drug dealers, but that’s how the police officer described his informant to this judge.

The police detective apparently fully trusted the secret snitch about these claims, no questions asked. We can safely assume this because the officer never even bothered to conduct the most basic, routine physical surveillance on the apartment to make sure the informant’s snitching was accurate. The failure to double check on the informant’s tip is troubling alone, but looks even worse in light of the fact that the detective’s own research didn’t support the claim that Mr. Jackson lived at the home. In his affidavit, the officer reports finding that Mr. Jackson’s latest known residence was not Ms. Diaz’, and that no current record showed he lived there. Nevertheless, acting on the word of his informant, and contra to his own research, the state trooper applied for and received a warrant to raid the home.

All of that is evidence of sloppy police work. But perhaps most embarrassing for the police is that at the time of the irresponsible and haphazard raid, Mr. Jackson, the target of the search warrant, had just been arrested by Worcester police, and gave the arresting officers a home address that didn’t match Ms. Diaz’.

In short, a state police detective claims he was told a story by someone who uses narcotics. Based on that supposed tip, and the tip alone, the police secured a warrant to conduct a military-style raid on Ms. Diaz’ home in the middle of the night, during which they traumatized her family. The target of the search warrant, who didn’t live at the address targeted, had been arrested just one week prior to the raid, locked up by the very Worcester police department that conducted the early morning ambush.

But despite all of this, the police officers on the scene refused to even apologize to Diaz or her family. One officer had the nerve to tell her “We treated you with respect” before they left empty handed—a trail of physical and emotional destruction in their wake. Confronted with their actions by the press, the State Police and Worcester Police Department have done little more than point fingers at each other.

The very least the police can do in light of their irresponsible conduct in this case is apologize to the family. That’s just basic human decency. But there are systemic and institutional issues at stake here, too. More broadly, this incident should trigger a desperately needed conversation about how police use confidential informants in the fourth decade of the destructive war on drugs—and what judges (and their clerks) let the police get away with.

The public—and particularly the Diaz family—deserves answers about what went wrong in this case. Was this particular informant paid for the information they gave to the state police? How much money was the informant paid? Why didn’t the police double check the information by conducting physical surveillance on the apartment, to make sure that the target of the search warrant was actually at the home, as the informant said he was? Why didn’t the clerk who signed the warrant require the police to do more homework before authorizing the warrant?

Are drug warrants so common that police don’t even bother to do basic investigations before resorting to invasive searches? And are judges and clerks so accustomed to approving warrants for drug searches that they are satisfied with the second-hand word of a confidential informant who is not known to the court and whose identity is kept secret from the criminal defense bar?

According to defense attorneys, law enforcement agencies too often use the word of confidential informants as justification to conduct invasive and potentially violent searches, usually in drug cases. And judges too often accept these unaccountable statements as reason enough to justify invasive searches. But your Fourth Amendment rights shouldn’t turn on whether or not the police say someone told them you did a bad thing, without any other evidence to suggest you did, especially when you have zero ability to challenge the say-so of the confidential informant, or even discover if the supposed informant really exists.

Police use of confidential informants, largely driven by the war on drugs, is almost entirely unregulated and shrouded in secrecy. What we do know is that the informant system puts individual informants at great risk, impugns the integrity of the justice system, and all too easily enables due process violations as routine as they are devastating. Perhaps most important, the use of confidential informants in the drug war undermines one of the most basic tenets of American justice: the right to see and challenge the evidence against you.

Each year, law enforcement agencies nationwide conduct tens of thousands of SWAT raids just like the one on Ms. Diaz’ Worcester home. The raids have become so common that we don’t often hear about them unless the cops raid the wrong house, or someone gets killed. When we see police bust down doors like storm troopers, wearing military style gear and shouting obscenities at young mothers with small children, we react with horror. Indeed, as the ACLU has said for years, police militarization is a problem.

But as the Diaz raid in Worcester shows, police militarization is only one piece of the environment that fosters these horrible incidents. We must also closely examine the legal framework used to justify this kind of force in the eyes of the courts. The irresponsible actions of the MA State Police and Worcester SWAT team raise significant questions about due diligence on the part of law enforcement. But it’s not just the police that lack good judgment and bear responsibility.

The court’s lackadaisical approval of a warrant based off of shoddy detective work should provoke lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges to carefully examine how confidential informants are used in Massachusetts. The purpose of court oversight and legislative restraint of law enforcement is to ensure that police can act effectively without violating anyone’s rights. As Ms. Diaz’ experience makes painfully clear, the system we have now simply doesn’t provide those protections.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.