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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

A ‘no-knock’ argument erupts in a Georgia congressional race

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Drew Ferguson, left, and Mike Crane, center, will face off in July's runoff for the Republican nomination in Georgia's 3rd Congressional District.  BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Drew Ferguson, left, and Mike Crane, center, will face off in July’s runoff for the Republican nomination in Georgia’s Third District congressional race. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

One of more powerful photos out of the Orlando massacre last weekend featured the dented Kevlar helmet that saved an officer from a fatal head shot as he and his fellows stormed the Pulse nightclub.

Yet police visits aren’t always about heroism and stellar execution.

In 2014, a Habersham County special ops team burst unannounced, under the cover of a “no-knock” warrant, into a home occupied by Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh and their four children. The law enforcement team was in search of a drug dealer who wasn’t there.

A flash-bang grenade landed in a playpen next to 19-month-old “Bou-Bou.” The injuries to the toddler were severe. In the aftermath, officers were sacked. One was subjected to federal prosecution, but acquitted.

The incident resulted in 2015 legislation to put “no-knock” warrants under tougher scrutiny, supported by an alliance of Democrats and Republicans in the state Capitol. But prosecutors and law enforcement networks objected, and the bill died.

Bounkham Phonesavanh Sr. (left) holds his son Bounkham during a farewell breakfast in Atlanta in 2014. Known as Baby Bou Bou, the young child was in the hospital for five weeks after a botched drug raid in Habersham County. Jonathan Phillips/Special to the AJC

Bounkham Phonesavanh Sr. (left) holds his son Bounkham during a farewell breakfast in Atlanta in 2014. Known as Baby Bou Bou, the young child was in the hospital for five weeks after a botched drug raid in Habersham County. Jonathan Phillips/Special to the AJC

Nonetheless, a sequel to that Fourth Amendment debate is now about to be revived in the Third District congressional contest to replace U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. For among the most conservative Capitol supporters of the measure to curtail “no-knock” warrants was state Sen. Mike Crane of Newnan.

Crane is in a July 26 Republican primary runoff with Drew Ferguson, the former mayor of West Point, Ga. Over the weekend, the Ferguson campaign announced the endorsements of eight sheriffs within the district, which stretches from south metro Atlanta to Columbus.

Crane’s history on “no-knock” warrants was a major factor.

Crane is a general contractor by trade who considers himself a strict constitutionalist. He has been critical of Gov. Nathan Deal, particularly for his veto of this past session’s “religious liberty” legislation. Business-oriented forces may be lining up against him.

Still, Crane notes that last year’s “no-knock” debate wasn’t ideological. It had the support of the right, the left, and the in-between.

“It’s really an issue of what is the role of government? What powers do we grant them? And is it fully within their power to grant themselves the power to enter your home in the middle of the night?” Crane said in an interview this week. “And then the question is, what are the circumstances and how high a bar should that be?”

Crane admires cops — and thinks they may have the toughest job in the world. He says he’s trying to help, not hurt. “It really is an issue of safety, not only for whoever is on the other side of that door, but for law enforcement,” he said.

All of which could make for a high-minded, gentlemanly discussion of search-and-seizure powers and the sanctity of private property — were it not for a bit of video his opponent has seized upon. The clip received limited circulation in the first round of campaigning. You’ll see much more of it in the next five weeks, but you can watch it here:

Earlier this spring, Crane was speaking to a crowd of like-minded Republicans. “Law enforcement doesn’t have a stronger advocate than Mike Crane down at the Capitol,” he said. Then the candidate launched into a testosterone-fueled discussion of “no-knock” warrants, which he declared illegal under Georgia law.

“You come to my house, kick down my door — if I have an opportunity, I will shoot you dead,” Crane said.

An “amen” can be heard in the recording, coming from the crowd.

“And every one of you should do the same. It is the only area where the law enforcement community and I differ,” Crane said. “But they have to understand the law.”

The clip bothered Mike Jolley, sheriff of Harris County — one of the eight sheriffs now lined up against Crane. “Even if I were not endorsing Drew, I have trouble with the comment that was made by Mr. Crane. No-knock warrants are a way of getting into a home when it’s dangerous for law enforcement — and potentially for the people inside the home,” the sheriff said. “It’s a legal warrant signed by a judge.”

In a photo from the Orlando Police Department, a Kelvar helmet worn by a police officer that was struck by gunfire during a shootout with the gunman at the Pulse nightclub.  Via the New York Times.

In a photo from the Orlando Police Department, a Kelvar helmet worn by a police officer that was struck by gunfire during a shootout with the gunman at the Pulse nightclub. Via the New York Times.

The tone is part of what chafes Jolley, especially coming from someone who wants to become a member of Congress. “You could have said, ‘Someone enters my home at night and I don’t know they are, then I’m going to take steps to protect myself,’” Jolley offered. “That would have been half-way decent. But to say if a law enforcement officer, if a police officer enters my home at night with a no-knock warrant — he’s calling us out.”

“He’s telling the bad guys, even if you know it’s a police officer, and they’re coming in your home, go ahead and shoot them,” Jolley said. Only four months ago, a Riverdale police major was slain while helping Clayton County police serve a “no-knock” drug warrant.

We talked to Crane prior to Jolley, and so needed to check back with the Third District candidate to see if he wanted answer the Harris County sheriff. And to see if he regretted the words he used in that video. Jacqueline Byrd, his campaign spokeswoman, did the honors.

“Once again the political elite resort to lies and distortions when they feel their power base threatened. It is clear that those in power are incredibly afraid of the principled, constitutional leadership consistently exhibited by Mike Crane,” she said in an email. “Sheriff Jolley is a fine law enforcement officer, but he is wrong about Mike.”

Not everyone realizes it, but we are already engaged in a debate over constitutional correctness on a national level. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made certain of that with his call for the monitoring of mosques in the United States.

The constitutional debate in the Third District could become nearly as hot, and Crane could find himself in a difficult spot. The primary runoff season in Georgia will overlap with the run-up to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the four-day meeting itself.

A hot summer of protests is ahead of us. If history is any guide, the national Republican reflex will be calls for law and order, coupled with nonstop expressions of support for cops on the street. If that does become a primary GOP emphasis in July, Crane — regardless of his constitutional motivations — could find himself placed on the wrong side of the thin blue line.