Legal Experts Question Why Police Never Sought A Search Warrant After Warning About Nashville Bomber
On Aug. 21, 2019, attorney Raymond Throckmorton called 911. He said a client in South Nashville was threatening to take her life.
“She has also given me information about another resident of that part of Nashville who is, I think, also got some mental and emotional problems who is allegedly building bombs in his house,” Throckmorton told police dispatchers. “I have reason to believe that there might actually be more truth to what she’s telling me about him than what she’s telling me about herself.”
After interviewing the woman and sending paramedics to her home, police went to the man’s house, where they saw several security cameras and an RV parked behind a wooden fence. According to a police report, officers knocked on Anthony Warner’s door multiple times, but he never opened it.
The report was passed along to the bomb squad. The FBI also searched for the man’s name in their databases, without luck. Chief John Drake tells WPLN News investigating further would have violated the man’s rights.
“The RV was inside of a back yard, and it has an expectation of privacy,” he says. “And so, without any type of search warrant, I mean, it was even fenced in, and you couldn’t even have a dog that could accidentally wander over there. You’d have to have a reason to get inside.”
Police have repeatedly asserted that officers did not have enough evidence for a search warrant when the Christmas bomber’s girlfriend reported he was building explosives in 2019. But some legal experts say otherwise.
In order to search someone’s private property without their permission, police need to prove they have something called probable cause. And the legal barrier is low. Officials just need to prove that they’re likely to find evidence that a crime is being committed.
‘There is zero legal consequence’
So, why didn’t the Metro Nashville Police Department even try to get a search warrant in 2019? The district attorney’s office tells WPLN News they have no records of a request, and the court clerk’s office says there’s no warrant related to the August 2019 case in their log. Drake says that’s because officers couldn’t smell any chemicals from outside the RV and couldn’t see anything suspicious inside it.
But former federal prosecutor Steve Miller says police had more than enough evidence for a warrant. And officers had nothing to lose by at least trying to get one.
“There is zero legal consequence for trying to obtain a search warrant,” he says. “If it’s granted, a judge has granted it, and it will overwhelmingly be upheld by the courts later on. If it’s denied, it’s been denied, and no one’s rights have been violated.”
Miller prosecuted multiple bomb cases while working for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, and he says MNPD missed several critical steps in its investigation that could have helped them get a warrant.
Miller says officers could have reached out to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to check their databases for any purchases of bomb-making materials. A spokesperson for the ATF says the agency has no record of such a request.
Miller says they also could have followed up with the man’s girlfriend and other people who knew him, rather than trying to interview the suspect himself.
“If I was conducting an investigation, that’s the last thing I would do,” Miller says. “I mean, maybe at the tail end of the investigation. But, what’s he gonna do? Say, ‘Yeah, I’m a bomb builder and I’m planning to blow up downtown Nashville?’ That’s not likely to happen.”
Ultimately, Miller says a judge could have weighed various factors when deciding whether or not to grant a warrant, including the complainant’s mental health and the seriousness of the threat. He calls bomb-making a “five-alarm crime” that requires all the expertise at the department’s disposal.
On the other hand, former public defender Keeda Haynes says police often searched her clients’ homes for lesser charges on much less information.
A double standard
“Those of us that are working in the criminal justice system each and every single day, we know that there is [bias],” she says. “I had Black men, and their charges are gun charges or drug charges, and just the amount of police work that goes into arresting people, getting search warrants for people on anonymous tips.”
Haynes says officers would often bang on her Black clients’ doors and refuse to leave, conduct surveillance on the street for days or search through the trash to find incriminating evidence. But that didn’t seem to happen for a middle-aged white man.
“If someone says that their boyfriend, you know, is making bombs in his home or his RV, and she’s seen this, Metro has an obligation to follow up on that tip. Period,” she says. “Metro dropped the ball here.”
As a defense attorney, Haynes says her priority will always be to protect people’s constitutional rights. But she says there seems to be a double standard, depending on who police are investigating and what they’re being investigated for. She thinks the department needs to look deeper than just the missteps in this particular case.
“We can talk all day long about what they could have done differently. We can have those conversations, and they can make the necessary policy changes all day long,” Haynes says. “But if they’re not dealing with the root cause of the problem, which is systemic racism, again, that runs rampant through this police department, if they are not dealing with that, if we are not calling it for what it is and forcing them to deal with this — then to me that’s the issue and that is what we need to be calling for Metro to deal with.”
Chief Drake has denied that implicit bias played a role in how MNPD investigated the case. A multi-agency after-action review committee is investigating the department’s response, to see if police made any mistakes.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.