And I'll Huff and I'll Puff

John Noltner

During the early hours of January 9, a sleepy cab driver drove up and down Cedar Avenue with Apple Valley police investigators. They were looking for the house where he had dropped a teenage girl during his route earlier that evening. She had witnessed a murder that had taken place in Apple Valley that same night. Eventually the cabbie pointed to a house, indicating that the blue light bulb shining on the front porch made it stand out from the other houses.

A few hours later, the police served a no-knock search warrant on the house, using a sledge hammer to bash the back door in. Officers armed with guns and flashlights ordered the lady of the house, Heidi Grayhek, and her elderly mother-in-law down onto their knees while they secured the house, leaving her 21/2-year-old son alone screaming in his crib. The men, Grayhek claims, didn't identify themselves as police officers until several tortured minutes later.

Unfortunately for them, Grayhek has a better sense than most of what proper police protocol is; her husband is an officer with the St. Paul Police Department. Apparently the blue light in front of Officer John Grayhek's house that had attracted the cabbie's attention--a vigil for police officers who had died in the line of duty--failed to raise any flags for the Apple Valley investigators.

Sitting in his small South Minneapolis house, arms crossed tightly over his chest, John Grayhek has a decidedly injured air about him. He says he can't believe a warrant was issued to begin with, chalking it up to the fact that this was the first time Apple Valley police ever had to search for murder suspects.

"I talked to one of Apple Valley's sergeants that night after they had executed the warrant, and asked whether they had run the license plate of my vehicle parked in back. He said yes, that it was registered to a St. Paul address. Apparently they didn't pick up on the fact that the address was St. Paul police headquarters. They made no attempts to find out who lived in this house before they asked for the warrant. They didn't check phone records, power records, they didn't check with Minneapolis police for previous calls to this address, and they didn't get a record from the cab company of the female's final destination.

"If they had asked the juvenile girl's mother during the course of their interview with her who her daughter knew on this street or had bothered to check with the cab company--which is what they eventually did after barging into my house--they would have gotten the exact address," he says. The affidavit Apple Valley investigators filed to get the warrant stated that they believed the female might have been an "accomplice," and that they were looking for a weapon. But Grayhek claims Deb Schmidt, the assistant Dakota County attorney who prosecuted the case, told him and his lawyer that none of the police reports in the case stated a reason for the cops to believe the young woman had the murder weapon. "We never discussed that," Schmidt retorts. She confirms that she showed Grayhek and the lawyer "confidential" documents, but claims they only discussed why the cops ended up at the wrong address.

Either way, there would seem to have been no need for a no-knock warrant. Although no-knock warrants are designed for narcotics raids, when evidence and officer safety are at risk, in this instance it was issued to locate an unarmed witness. When police went back to question the girl's mother, she rattled off an address a block away from Grayhek's home that matched with the cab company's dispatch records. The police telephoned the house, and the girl came out voluntarily. She was released from police custody hours later.

Talking in quiet, unemotional tones, Grayhek shudders visibly when he thinks of his family being terrorized by his peers. "I don't know why they couldn't have called the phone company and gotten my phone number, called the house, and asked everyone to step out because they had a warrant on this female's arrest. Which is what they did 12 hours later." He contends that the police acted recklessly and says that in a meeting with Apple Valley Police Chief Roger Willow, Willow admitted as much. "I go in and meet with the chief and the first thing out of his mouth is, 'I'm reluctant to say anything to you because I know you're going to sue us,'" says Grayhek. "I wanted to see a copy of the search warrant, but Willow said that because they never found the suspect at my house, they might never file the affidavit. I said, 'Hold on, you have to file a search warrant any time it is executed.' He excused himself, I assume to call an attorney, comes back and says they have 10 days to file it, and we'll mail it to you five days after the 10."  

Grayhek never got a copy of the warrant, which he contends is because the only person listed on it was a juvenile female and not the suspect, proof that Apple Valley was "headhunting for a witness." Although the several witnesses at the crime scene said that the murder in question had been committed by a single person, in a recent phone interview Willow defended the investigation, stating that at the time, they "weren't sure" whether they were looking for a witness or an accomplice. "We don't use no-knock warrants that often, but felt that it was warranted in this particular circumstance," he says. "Obviously the judge felt it was, too, because he signed it."

The use of no-knock warrants has skyrocketed during recent years, causing alarm for those who believe that private property and civil liberties are being taken for granted during the course of these police actions. More sobering, they say, is the fact that citizens have almost no legal recourse, even in the case of police negligence.

For example, Minneapolis is gaining a reputation for overusing no-knock warrants, with the numbers served by Minneapolis's Emergency Response Unit (ERU) leaping from 35 in 1987 to more than 700 in 1996, more than their SWAT counterparts in Los Angeles. ERU supervisors themselves have said no-knock warrants are being overserved without respect to genuine need or concern for people's safety on either side of the door. Last winter, a memo from ERU supervisors circulating among police administrators charged that "the department is unduly endangering citizen and officer safety for no reason other than to further political agendas" and "using high-risk search warrants to solve neighborhood livability issues."

Indeed, the department suffered some chagrin last November when 12 police officers served a no-knock on a suspected marijuana dealer's house in North Minneapolis ("Friendly Fire," 9/17/97). The ordeal, in which one officer is presumed to have shot another in the neck, turned up only a minute amount of marijuana; no drug charges were filed. ERU Sgt. Bob Kroll's team served 50 such warrants in one 13-day period last year--roughly the same number its counterpart in St. Paul serves in a year. Commenting on the Grayhek case, Kroll says that using a no-knock warrant to track down a witness simply isn't done. "You just wouldn't issue that level of a warrant for a witness," he says. "We don't do that, not in Minneapolis."

But Hennepin County criminal defender Joseph Margulies isn't a bit surprised that the Apple Valley police were able to obtain the warrant. "The question you have to ask yourself is why these officers are seeking no-knock warrants when even the federal drug agents generally do not," he says. "Television has glamorized no-knock scenarios to the point where officers have come to expect them to be the norm. It's become a completely reflexive response, part of a tabloid mentality. No wonder so many Minneapolis communities feel so much animosity toward the police."

Grayhek's attorney, Paul Rogosheske, agrees. "Judges will sign anything at 3 in the morning, especially when they know they have complete immunity. You think that you're safe in your house, that cops and judges are liable for their mistakes. Well, they aren't."

Grayhek has about two months to file a civil lawsuit against the Apple Valley Police Department, claiming that his toddler still has nightmares about, as the boy calls them, the "bad men" who came and smashed through his back door last winter. Although Apple Valley paid to replace the door that was ruined during the course of the search (the only item that was damaged physically), Grayhek's attorney believes that the family is due more.

"My hope," says Rogosheske, "is that these people will get compensation to pay for counseling and for pain and suffering. The problem is that you have to prove that the cops acted negligently. But in this case, the degree of negligence is way up there. For example, any half-alive person knows that cab companies keep dispatch records."

Minneapolis criminal attorney Frederick Goetz thinks that the Grayheks were lucky that the cops deigned to pay for their new door. "Because police immunity precludes any damage claims, most people in these cases are just out the money," he notes. "You really need to prove that the police had malicious intent, and even then it would be extremely unusual to recover damages. The tides are turning toward protecting police power rather than individual rights."

Having worn the shoe on the other foot, Grayhek says he's one Twin Cities police officer who'll be cautious about wielding his powers. "This whole experience is going to make me think twice before I go and get a search warrant because now I know what the repercussions are."

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