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Georgia lawmakers plan another look at no-knock warrants
Georgia state seal W

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers may be ready to put new limits on the use of "no-knock" warrants after an infant was severely burned by a flash grenade during an overnight police raid last May in north Georgia.

A bill introduced this month with bipartisan sponsors requires that "no-knock" warrants be carried out between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. unless a judge specifically OKs an overnight search. It also requires more oversight and written training policies within police agencies.

The warrants, which allow police to raid locations without announcing themselves, have been controversial for several years, but a 2007 bill to crack down on their use failed. Republicans still hold the governor's mansion and significant majorities in the General Assembly in Georgia.

But lawmakers from both parties reacted with sympathy after Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, who was 19 months old at the time, was seriously injured when a flash grenade detonated in his playpen as officers in Habersham County conducted an early-morning drug raid.

During a state-level investigation of the incident, Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, said he's open to discussing whether legislative changes are necessary. A grand jury that reviewed the case ultimately recommended no criminal charges against the officers, but the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta is still investigating the case.

Republican Rep. Kevin Tanner, a former sheriff's deputy who worked in law enforcement for 18 years, said he already was discussing limits on the warrants when the toddler's case became national news. Under his bill, law enforcement agencies also would have to report their warrants to the state. Tanner said that will indicate whether the tactic is being overused, as opponents have argued.

"The attention always is drawn to the bad situations, but we have hundreds of search warrants conducted in Georgia, and there's never a problem with them," Tanner said. "We're just trying to tighten the process and put some speed bumps in the pathway."

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said his organization's members are fine with that. The proposal adds accountability for law enforcement and judges signing off on the warrants, he said.

However, limiting the use of overnight no-knock warrants may be the furthest Georgia lawmakers are willing to go as discussions of police tactics crop up in states across the country in response to law enforcement killings of unarmed residents in Missouri, New York and elsewhere.

Some Democrats in Georgia want to set a higher standard for judges' approval of no-knock warrants and require that police wear body cameras. State Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat sponsoring those bills, said he's optimistic about getting Republican support for the ideas and added that a GOP-controlled state Senate approved similar no-knock restrictions in 2008.

House Democrats left regulation of police tactics off their list of caucus goals for the session, but members have filed related legislation. Rep. Stacey Abrams, House Democrats' leader, said residents of metro Atlanta have different concerns about law enforcement than those 150 miles south in rural Abbeville.


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