by Jayson Hawkins
A judge hearing oral arguments in an insurance fraud appeal on April 7, 2022, stopped the proceedings when she discovered a “deeply troubling” item in the record: when serving a search warrant in a rich Washington, D.C. neighborhood, the FBI decided not to break down the front door “due to the aesthetics of the neighborhood.”
The arguments were part of an appeal stemming from the insurance fraud conviction of Tarek Abou–khatwa in 2019. Judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit noted that while the decision to discreetly breach the back door was not material to Abou–khatwa’s appeal, they could not allow it to pass without taking the government’s attorneys to task.
Judge Patricia Millet asked if “there really is a policy out there that in non-affluent neighborhoods we’ll break down the front door, but for the rich people we’ll go in quietly in the back door…it’s shocking to me that it didn’t get more attention.”
Judge Robert Wilkins, a former D.C.–area public defender, thanked Millet for calling attention to the issue, noting that he could not “remember a single time where any agent was worried about the aesthetics of what the house would look like after they executed a search or arrest.”
When the points the judge raised were posted on Slate’s Twitter feed, former agent Jabari–Jason Tyson–Phipps replied: “The problem is there are two justice systems: 1 for poor people and minorities and 1 for rich people and generally white people. You see it when you are one of the few black agents. Everyone is not equal.”
The controversy these revelations has generated comes amid the fallout from a string of fatally botched “no–knock” midnight raids by police, most infamously in the tragic case of Breanna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, but playing out with equally deadly consequences in cities as far apart as Houston, Texas and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Unlike police in the fatal cases above, the FBI agents knocked on Abou–khatwa’s door, and once they determined no one was home, agents testified “the decision was made, since it was an affluent neighborhood” to inconspicuously force their way into the home.
The racial and class-based implications of such decisions suggest that if one is lucky enough to live in Abou–khatwa’s Kalorama Heights neighborhood, where median income is $175,000 and 75% of residents are white, one can expect a fair amount of consideration and courtesy from the FBI. It is not a huge leap to imagine that this same intersection between economics and race plays a key role in local law enforcement also.
Finnuala Tessier, the Justice Department attorney at the hearing, did not attempt to defend the FBI’s actions. “I will pass that on to my management,” she said. “I understand why it’s upsetting to the court.”
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