Breonna Taylor case shows cops can be charged for lying in search warrants

6 minute read

Breonna Taylor’s art is seen in Jefferson Square after the announcement that the FBI arrested and brought civil rights charges against four current and former Louisville police officers for their roles in the 2020 fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., August 4, 2022. REUTERS/Amira Karaoud

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(Reuters) - The first conviction for the police killing of Breonna Taylor more than two years ago is expected Tuesday, when former Louisville, Kentucky, detective Kelly Goodlett plans to plead guilty to federal charges for helping falsify the warrant that led to the botched raid at Taylor’s home.

Until this month, the only person to face charges in connection with the March 2020 raid and Taylor's killing was former detective Brett Hankison, one of three officers who fired shots into Taylor’s home. Hankison was charged with endangering a neighbor during the barrage of gunfire, rather than for anything related to Taylor’s death. He was acquitted in that case in March.

Myles Cosgrove — the Louisville Metro Police Department officer who fired the fatal shot, according to an FBI analysis — has never faced criminal charges.

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Still, the indictments of Goodlett and three other officers this month are a step toward a modicum of accountability for another unjustified police killing of a Black person — spurred largely by Taylor’s family’s persistent advocacy for justice in the case. The extraordinary decision to charge police officers for lying to obtain a search warrant, and in such a high profile case, also sets a prominent example for other state and federal law enforcement to follow.

Taylor's boyfriend shot at police officers with his legally owned gun after they broke her door during a drug investigation. Police responded with at least 32 shots over the course of a few minutes. The killing of the 26-year-old emergency medical technician led to protests around the country.

Goodlett is expected to plead guilty on Tuesday to conspiracy for agreeing to falsely state in a warrant affidavit that Detective Joshua Jaynes verified that the target of the investigation received packages at Taylor’s address. A U.S. postal inspector later contradicted their account in local news reports, which prompted a night-time meeting in Jaynes’ garage, the Justice Department said. Goodlett and Jaynes agreed to “get on the same page” during that meeting, and later lied to investigators to cover up their previous deception, according to the charging documents.

Officers Jaynes and Kyle Meany were charged on Aug. 4 with more serious civil rights violations and obstruction of justice for drafting and approving the false affidavit, and also for allegedly lying to federal investigators.

Hankison was charged with civil rights violations for blindly firing 10 shots through a window and glass door after there was no longer any perceptible reason for deadly force, according to prosecutors.

An attorney for Goodlett didn’t respond to requests for comment. Hankison’s lawyer, Stew Matthews, has said he will contest the charges. Attorneys for the other charged officers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Justice Department referred me to Attorney General Merrick Garland's previous remarks about the cases.

Police perjury in warrant affidavits is common, although it is rarely caught, according to research by Stephen Gard, law professor emeritus at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

“Inasmuch as lies and deception are an acceptable feature of much routine law enforcement activity, it should come as no surprise that scholars have found that law enforcement officers frequently lie to their own superiors in police reports” and perjure themselves in criminal trials, Gard wrote in a 2008 law review article.

Empirical investigations since the 1930s have also documented “widespread perjury by law enforcement officers in warrant affidavits,” Gard wrote, citing studies commissioned by the Justice Department, New York City, Los Angeles, the White House and Congress.

In Taylor’s case, Jaynes admitted in court documents months after her killing that some of the language in the affidavit was “incorrect,” Louisville’s NPR affiliate reported in November 2020. Jaynes’ attorneys said he made an “honest mistake."

The judge who signed the warrant told the Louisville Courier-Journal in October that year that she was concerned that Jaynes had lied to obtain it. And Louisville Metro's own internal investigation concluded in July 2020 that the affidavit included “misleading” information,” and suggested that the department consider criminal charges against Jaynes.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting looked into warrant procedures in Louisville after Taylor's death. It found that more than 70% of warrants executed in Louisville between January 2019 and September 2020 included an illegible signature from a judge.

The same problems are widespread around the country.

A former Baltimore detective was sentenced to 30 months in prison in July for falsifying search warrant applications, along with other, much more serious crimes.

In March, I wrote about a multi-agency drug task force in West Virginia whose officers were scolded by multiple federal courts for what judges described as purposeful disregard for the rules requiring warrants to be supported by truthful information. The federal judges also criticized magistrates and prosecutors in Charleston, West Virginia, for apparently allowing the deceptive practices. The Charleston Police Department and other involved agencies declined my requests for comment at the time.

In 2019, former officers in Houston were charged with murder and evidence tampering for fabricating information for a search warrant that led to a deadly raid. At least 10 officers are still facing pending charges, and one has pleaded guilty to charges for falsifying records, the Houston Chronicle reported this month.

Despite its prevalence, the problem often goes unaddressed — largely because so many defendants plead guilty in order to be released from jail or to avoid more serious charges, according to research by Steven Zeidman, a law professor at the City University of New York School of Law.

The U.S. Supreme Court has only issued one major ruling on the issue of perjurious statements in search warrant affidavits, in Franks v. Delaware in 1978. That ruling left many critical issues unresolved, and lower courts have interpreted it in conflicting ways that make it unjustifiably difficult to challenge perjury in warrants, Gard wrote.

Taylor’s case is emblematic of the problem, and the tragic consequences.

Notably, during his interview with internal investigators, Jaynes repeatedly — and without being prompted — rejected the idea that the problem stems from individual oversight.

“These are our warrants. We all had a hand in this,” Jaynes said.

The new cases stemming from Taylor’s killing demonstrate that officers can be criminally charged where there is evidence that they willfully lied to obtain a search warrant. It sends an important deterrent message that local departments should look to replicate.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at