POLITICS

Raid Of The Day: Anthony Diotaiuto

02/15/2013 02:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

At about 6:15 am in August 2005, a SWAT team converged outside the Sunrise, Florida, home of Anthony Diotaiuto.

The police said they had received an anonymous tip that there was marijuana in Diotaiuto's home, which they confirmed when an informant purchased an ounce of marijuana from the 23-year-old bartender and part-time student.

Diotaiuto's friends and family acknowledge that he was a recreational marijuana smoker, and may have occasionally sold small amounts of pots to friends. But they denied he was a major drug dealer. Diotaiuto, they said, had just bought the modest home with his mother after taking a second job and selling off his prized sports car. He had one previous conviction for possession of marijuana, when he was 16. Otherwise, Diotaiuto had no criminal record, and no history of violence or criminal conduct.

By 7 a.m. the raid was over. Diotaiuto was dead. According to police, the SWAT team knocked and loudly announced themselves, then waited 10-15 seconds before they broke down Diotaiuto's front door and set off a flash grenade. They say Diotaiuto was in his living room when they entered, and then ran to his bedroom, armed himself, and waited in a closet. When police opened the door, they said he raised his gun, at which point they shot him. Police said Diotaiuto was then slumped against the back wall of the closet, still breathing, but with his hand on the trigger, so they shot him again. By the time the shooting was over, Diotaiuto had 10 bullet holes in his head, chest, torso, and limbs. He didn't fire a shot. The police would wait three hours before contacting the county coroner.

Neighbors who were awake at he time of the raid told the local media they heard no announcement, only the gunfire. That doesn't mean necessarily mean the police were lying. But Diotaiuto had just worked a night shift, and had only been home a few hours before the raid. His family said he was likely asleep in his bedroom, away from the front door, possibly with the door closed, as the raid began. If neighbors didn't hear the announcement, it's certainly possible that he didn't either.

Immediately after the raid, a police spokesman told local reporters that Diotaiuto "had a gun and pointed it at our officers." Later the same day he revised the story. "In all likelihood, that's what happened. I know there was a weapon found next to the body." The police department would eventually settle on the claim that Diotaiuto had raised the gun toward the officers. The police also initially said they had found two ounces of marijuana in the house. They later reduced that to one ounce. By the time a grand jury heard the case, it was 16 grams, about a fourth of what police initially claimed, and an amount that would have earned Diotaiuto a misdemeanor had he survived the raid.

The police also found a BB gun, a shotgun, a rifle, and the handgun they alleged Diotaiuto was holding. All were legal. In fact, Diotaiuto had a valid concealed carry permit in the state of Florida. To get that permit, he had to fill out a variety of paperwork, undergo a criminal background check, allow himself to be fingerprinted, pay a fee, and enroll in a class on gun safety and firearms law. Bizarrely, Sunrise police claimed the permit indicated Diotaiuto was potentially dangerous--thus the SWAT team, flash grenade, and forced entry. It should have indicated precisely the opposite. Hardened criminals generally don't volunteer for registration and fingerprinting that will tie them to the guns they plan to use in their crimes. It's more the sort of thing law-abiding gun owners do. Of course, if you're going to claim that a registered gun owner poses a threat to police, a good way to prove the point would be to send a police team to break down his door at 6 o'clock in the morning--conditions where nearly anyone would quite naturally react against the intruders.

After the shooting, the Sunrise Police Department assured the media that all of the officers involved had stellar performance records. The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that both officers who shot Diotaiuto routinely received "above-average" or "excellent" reviews, garnered dozens of recommendations, and earned multiple "officer of the month" distinctions.

Of course, all of that was beside the point. Even Diotaiuto's closest friends and family didn't believe the police set out to murder him. It was a question of tactics--about whether sending a SWAT team into the home of a guy who was at worst a small-stakes pot dealer was an appropriate use of force. As Eleanor Shockett, a retired Miami-Dade circuit judge, told Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo. "What in the hell were they doing with a SWAT team? To break into someone's home at six in the morning, possibly awaken someone from a deep sleep, someone who has a concealed weapons permit? What did they expect to happen?"

At the time, Sunrise was a city of 90,000 people. It saw less than a single murder each year. This wasn't a city bleeding for lack of a SWAT team. But like more than 90 percent of cities its size, Sunrise had one.

His family later filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Sunrise and the officers who conducted the raid on his home. The lawsuit never made it to a jury. It was dismissed by a federal circuit court judge in summary judgment. In September 2010, that decision was unanimously upheld by three judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The legal barrier for lawsuits in such cases is high, but the 11th Circuit panel's decision rested entirely on the police account of the raid. It completely dismissed the possibility that a groggy man who had just been subjected to a flash grenade--again a device that is designed to confuse and disorient anyone in the vicinity--might have mistook the SWAT team for criminal intruders. As for the neighbors who heard no announcement, the panel dismissed them in a footnote as "questionable evidence" before pointing out that "virtually every police officer on scene testified that the SWAT team knocked and announced before entering Diotaiuto's home."

The cops said they announced. Whether they were telling the truth, or it was even possible for Diotaiuto to have heard them, didn't matter.

Diotaiuto was the third Floridian killed in a drug raid in four months that summer.

(The "Raid of the Day" features accounts of police raids I've found, researched, and reported while writing my forthcoming book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. It's due out in July, but you can pre-order it here.)

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