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Officer Indicted In SWAT Raid That Left Toddler With Third Degree Burns

Nikki Autry is charged with four counts of civil rights violations for lying to a judge to obtain a search warrant.

by VICE News
Jul 23 2015, 4:59pm

Photo by Erik Lesser/EPA

VICE News is closely watching policing in America. Check out the Officer Involved blog here.

A former Georgia sheriff's deputy has been indicted by a federal grand jury over allegedly lying to a judge to justify a May 2014 SWAT raid that left a toddler badly injured after police threw a stun grenade into the child's playpen.

For the past year, the FBI has been investigating the circumstances leading up to the early morning raid that left 19-month-old Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh with third degree burns and possible brain damage. Acting US Attorney John Horn said on Wednesday that former Habersham County deputy Nikki Autry's false statements resulted in the tragic incident.

"Autry is charged with making false statements to a judge in order to obtain search and arrest warrants," Horn said in a statement released Wednesday. "Our criminal justice system depends upon our police officers' sworn duty to present facts truthfully and accurately."

In May 2014, then Habersham County deputy Autry was working with an anti-narcotics task force to bust drug dealers. She told a magistrate judge that a "true and reliable informant" bought meth at a home the Phonesavanh family was staying in, and that the home was "heavily trafficked." The judge then issued a "no-knock" warrant for a SWAT team to raid the house.

According to the Wednesday's indictment, Autry's statements to the judge were not true.

Hours after the judge issued the warrant, a SWAT team burst into the home where the Phonesavanh family was staying. The front door was partially blocked by a playpen, and one officer lobbed a flash-bang grenade — a device intended to subdue uncooperative suspects or break up street protests —into the doorway. It landed in the toddler's playpen and exploded on the pillow.

"Every day the family wakes up and this child looks in the mirror, they relive the terrible early morning hours of May 28," Mawuli Davis of Davis Bozeman Law, who represents the Phonesavanhs, told VICE News in January. "It was traumatizing and deeply painful. They're hurting as a family emotionally, financially, and physically."

Related: Toddler Maimed by SWAT Flash Grenade Sparks Georgia Bills on 'No-Knock' Warrants

The US attorney blamed the tragedy on Autry. "Without her false statements, there was no probable cause to search the premises for drugs or to make the arrest. And in this case, the consequences of the unlawful search were tragic," Horn said on Wednesday.

After the raid, which did not result in any arrests, the toddler was put into a medically induced coma and hospitalized for five weeks with third-degree burns.

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said at the time that if the officers had known the toddler was sleeping by the front door his officers would have behaved differently. "We might have gone in through a side door. ... We would not have used a flash-bang," he said.

A state grand jury found the drug investigation "hurried" and "sloppy," during an inquiry last October. But ultimately, that jury decided that none of the law enforcement officials acted with criminal intent, and declined to deliver an indictment. In August Habersham County refused to pay the family's medical bills, which amounted to more than $1 million.

The county announced in April had settled with the family for $964,000.

Autry resigned after the grand jury findings were released. She is now charged with four separate civil rights violations, including "willfully depriving the occupants of the residence of their right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures."

In a statement released Wednesday, Autry's attorney Jeff Brickman said the US Attorney turned his client into a scapegoat. "[Autry] is being made the lone target for the poorly designed and implemented search and seizure policies of her prior department and a since disbanded drug task force," he said.

The raid is seen by many as the epitome of the dangers of militarizing police forces. According to a report released by the libertarian Cato Institute in 2006 entitled "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America," over the past 30 years, SWAT deployments nationwide have exploded from under 3,000 a year to over 40,000.

Seven months after the incident, Democratic Senator Vincent Fort introduced "Bou Bou's Law" to severely restrict "no knock" warrants and SWAT raids in Georgia. The bill is still working its way through the legislature.