Unlawful Entry

The high price of Denver's drug war: lies, bad busts, cops in harm's way - and the death of an innocent man.

Those efforts may not be enough, however. Even if you accept Thomas's verdict that the shooting was a clean one, that doesn't erase the image of police officers busting into Mena's room, confronting the frightened, 45-year-old Mexican national -- who was trying to catch a few hours of sleep before heading off to a bottling plant to earn money for his large family in Jalisco -- and killing him. The case has driven a wedge of fear and distrust between police and the public that won't be easily overcome.

Mayor Webb, of course, sees it differently. At a press conference expressing his own satisfaction with the Thomas report, he noted: "If Mr. Mena didn't have a gun and wasn't pointing it at police officers, he'd be alive today."

"If police hadn't gotten the wrong house, Mena would be alive," counters Lemos. "No matter what the misconduct is, the police are always exonerated."

Mena posing for a family snapshot with his nine children, his wife and his brother.
Mena posing for a family snapshot with his nine children, his wife and his brother.
There goes the neighborhood: Ismael Mena was sleeping in his room at 3738 High when the SWAT team executed its flawed warrant.
David Rehor
There goes the neighborhood: Ismael Mena was sleeping in his room at 3738 High when the SWAT team executed its flawed warrant.

The coroner found no drugs in Ismael Mena's system, but he is just as much a casualty of the drug war as any smackhead who's overdosed on a poorly cut shipment. The justification for his death comes down to nothing more than a $20 crack buy that took place behind the house next door. That's the way the war is waged in Denver, where the campaign against street-level dealing involves high risk and meager returns. Yet that hasn't stopped police and prosecutors from relying more and more heavily on the principal weapons in their drug-fighting arsenal: no-knock warrants and the faceless army of confidential informants that goes with them.

Webb's decision to appoint a panel to review the no-knock warrant process may be one of the few encouraging developments to emerge from the recent spinfest over Mena's death. The Denver Police Department's use of no-knocks has escalated dramatically in recent years, with little judicial review of their effectiveness, dangers to bystanders and cops alike, or even basic veracity. In fact, the process of obtaining them has become so routine that it's hard to credit the notion that the peculiarities of Bini's warrant for 3738 High are more the exception than the rule.

"We hear about the people who get caught, but how many fruitless drug searches have there been?" asks Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU. "It takes an innocent person getting killed for a police officer to be charged with committing perjury. Most criminal defense lawyers will tell you it happens every day in court, in minor cases and big cases."

For the perjury charge to stick in Bini's case, prosecutors will have to prove that the officer knowingly made false statements on his affidavit. Outright fraud probably isn't standard procedure in no-knock warrants, but all too often, the police discover the defects in a warrant after it's too late, when they've already battered down the door and found an appalling lack of dope or viable suspects.

Like the drug world it seeks to combat, the no-knock crusade is riddled with bad deals, unreliable suppliers and lies that can get somebody killed.

On average, Denver police enter a private residence unannounced every two or three days. County court judges approved 107 "immediate entry" warrants in 1997, 148 in 1998. Figures for 1999 have not yet been released, but estimates based on monthly totals indicate that SWAT officers executed between 160 and approximately 180 no-knock warrants last year.

The vast majority of no-knocks involve drug cases, usually crack cocaine. The criteria for obtaining a no-knock are supposed to be tougher than the requirements for an ordinary search warrant, but since the escalation of the drug war during the Reagan era, the U.S. Supreme Court has provided law enforcement with considerable latitude on search-and-seizure issues, creating what the ACLU's Silverstein describes as "the drug exception to the Fourth Amendment." These days, in order to get a no-knock, a police officer must first establish one of two conditions: a probability that there are weapons in the residence, putting officers at risk; or a probability that evidence will be destroyed while the cops are waiting for someone to open the door.

Typically, the evolution of a no-knock warrant begins with information in the form of an informant's tip or "anonymous complaints" that drugs are being sold out of a particular residence. The investigating officer then conducts a brief surveillance to determine whether there is excessive foot traffic or other "suspicious activity" surrounding the address. He then arranges for an informant -- who is almost never named in the warrant and may never have been in the house before -- to conduct a controlled buy.

The informant is searched in order to establish that he has no drugs on him, then handed some buy money and sent into the house. He returns with the dope, which is bagged as evidence and tested. If the stuff tests positive, then the officer is ready to write up his affidavit requesting a warrant, using the kind of boilerplate language that judges have come to expect in such matters.

In the warrants crafted by Denver's drug warriors, the requesting officer is always an authority on the narcotics trade, someone who has "participated in numerous drug seizures and arrests" and "continues to keep himself informed on current trends in trafficking of controlled substances by continually talking with other law enforcement officers at the local, state and federal levels." The informant is always a "previously reliable informant" who, being a reformed (or struggling) dopehead himself, is "familiar with the color, texture, taste and packaging of controlled substances" -- unless, of course, the controlled buy was done by an undercover cop or a "first-time informant" nobody knows from Adam. In any event, the tips provided by the informant in the past have always turned out to be good.

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