Search Warrants, Wrong Door Raids and Phantom Informants

Historically, search warrants have been the staple of police departments conducting investigations with limited manpower or financial resources. The cases are cost-effective and produce quick results. Drugs are seized, arrests are made, drug dens are closed, and in some cases property is forfeited.


Search warrants have also provided defense attorneys with a seemingly endless stream of clients. The unfortunate truth is that many winnable cases are needlessly resolved with guilty pleas by attorneys who have no idea how a controlled search warrant buy should occur. Many clients claiming to have been “set up” or “planted” by an informant or police may well be telling the truth.


The number of search warrants relying exclusively on an unidentified informant making a controlled buy has increased dramatically in the last three decades. So have the number of cases where it has been proven that police malpractice allowed an informant to “set up” an innocent citizen to further his own agenda.


Like most law enforcement operations, there are established protocols for controlled purchases of evidence.  The rules are in place to eliminate opportunities for informant and police misconduct.


Although the rules may vary slightly between law enforcement agencies, what follows should be standard police practice for controlled buys:

  • Fully identify and document the informant.
  • Thoroughly debrief the CI.
  • Search the CI and his vehicle, if used to travel to the targeted location.
  • Provide CI with buy money and install recorder or transmitter.
  • Follow CI to the buy location.
  • Observe the CI enter and exit the targeted premises.
  • Follow CI directly to a prearranged location for a meeting that occurs immediately after the buy.
  • Collect evidence and electronic equipment from the CI.
  • Search the CI and vehicle again for any contraband or money.
  • Debrief the informant and obtain a written and signed statement.

Wrong-Door Raids

While the execution of a search warrant has become routine, they remain high risk police operations. The protocols for search warrant cases are routinely violated. The consequences have been deadly.


During the last 20 years, police have killed at least 40 innocent people while conducting wrong-door raids. According to a study by the Cato Institute, “Because of shoddy police work, over reliance on informants, and other problems, each year hundreds of raids are conducted on the wrong addresses, bringing unnecessary terror and frightening confrontation to people never suspected of a crime.”


Each year, hundreds of raids are conducted on the wrong addresses.There have been at least three investigations of botched search warrant raids that offer far more troubling explanations. The blame is placed on the following:

  1. Willful disregard for police SOP’s governing the use of informants and conducting controlled buys;
  2. Police use of “cookie-cutter” affidavits containing boilerplate language from a computer program;
  3. Blatant lies in search warrant affidavits;
  4. Police creating phantom informants;
  5. Police supplying drug exhibits “purchased” by a phantom informant;
  6. Police planting drugs in homes when no drugs are discovered during a search.

Fabricated Probable Cause and Phantom Informants

The ease of obtaining a search warrant and the number of search warrants issued each year has had unintended consequences for judges, prosecutors and the criminal defense bar. There is a tendency for each to believe the contents of affidavits submitted by police seeking a search warrant.


Some police officers fabricate the probable cause contained in the search warrant affidavit.The unfortunate truth is that some police officers fabricate the probable cause contained in the search warrant affidavit.  Some go so far as to attribute the information used in affidavits to informants who do not exist. Agents are able to obtain search warrants by attributing fictitious accounts of criminal activity in affidavits to a non-existent “reliable informant.”


In 2006, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston became a victim of a phantom informant when she was murdered by Atlanta police during a no-knock search warrant. Shot six times in a hail of over 40 bullets, she was handcuffed as she lay dying. Three officers were hit by friendly fire.


An FBI investigation into the shooting revealed that all of the probable cause recited in the Johnston affidavit was false. The informant was a phantom; he did not exist. The controlled buy never occurred. The drugs “purchased” by the phantom were supplied by the police, seized during an earlier arrest. Money used for the purported buy was pocketed by the affiant police

officer. Drugs found in the Johnston home were planted by members of the raid team, seized in an earlier, unrelated investigation.


Four detectives involved in the case were found guilty of a multitude of crimes. The victim’s family received a $4.9 million out-of-court settlement.

AssistanceIf you are confronted with a search warrant case that you suspect was the result of police misconduct read Wrong Door Raids, Phantom Informants and the Controlled Buy, contact Dennis G. Fitzgerald for further guidance or assistance.

Further Reading

Read the article, Wrong Door Raids, Phantom Informants and the Controlled Buy, written by Dennis for Champion Magazine, November 2009


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