Narragansett police demanded search warrant during raid

By Ray Henry
Providence, Rhode Island
(AP) 3-08

A tribal police chief tried to block state police from searching a Narragansett smoke shop in 2003, saying he wouldn’t accept a search warrant issued by a state court, Lt. David Palmer testified during the criminal trial of seven Narragansetts arrested that day.

Palmer was the first uniformed officer to arrive outside the smoke shop on July 14, 2003.

The tribe had recently started selling cigarettes on its land in Charlestown without collecting state taxes. Narragansett leaders claimed the land was exempt from state law, although a federal appeals court later rejected that argument.

Palmer said he was quickly confronted by Lt. Rodney Champlin, the tribe’s acting police chief. TV crews filmed their encounter, and the jurors watched it several times.

Moments into the raid, Palmer told Champlin that state police had a state warrant to search the shop. Champlin said the Narragansett tribe would accept only a federal search warrant, then spread his arms wide and tried to stop state police from running past him and up the shop’s driveway.

“He blocked me, and I told him if you block me, you’re going to get arrested,” Palmer testified.

Defense lawyers have criticized state police for not giving Narragansett leaders a copy of the search warrant at the start of the raid and for using too much force. Under questioning from a defense attorney, Palmer said he was not carrying a copy of the warrant. He said the situation was too chaotic for paperwork.

“We don’t show a search warrant to people who are combative because it puts us in harm’s way,” Palmer said.

The raid sparked a violent scuffle between police and tribe members. Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, the tribe’s leader, and six other defendants were charged with misdemeanor crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to assault. Champlin was not among those charged.

During a pre-raid briefing, state police commanders warned about 51 police officers assigned to the search that the tribal police carried handguns and might draw them. Palmer decided to wear his bulletproof vest.

A defense lawyer questioned Palmer about why police needed such a large number of officers to deliver a search warrant for a tax violation. Palmer said he wasn’t surprised that many were used, but said the only other time during his two decades in the state police he could remember such a large number of officers was for a raid involving the Hell’s Angels, a violent motorcycle gang.