In Los Angeles County v. Rettele et. al, i the United States Supreme Court reviewed a civil rights lawsuit brought against Los Angeles County officers who had executed a search warrant at a home that had been sold and was no longer in possession of the subjects of the warrant.
Los Angeles County officers were investigating a fraud and identity-theft ring that involved 4 African-American subjects, one of whom was known to possess a registered handgun. The investigation was conducted between September and December of 2001. In early December, the investigator in the case obtained a search warrant authorizing the search of two residences and three of the four subjects. In support of the search of the house in question, the investigator cited motor vehicle records, an outstanding warrant, internet phone records and mailing address listings. What the investigator, Watters, did not know was that the house had been sold in September and was now occupied by three white residents, Max Rettele, his girlfriend, Judy Sadler and Sadler’s 17 year-old son Chase Hall.
“ On the morning of December 19, Watters briefed six other deputies in preparation for the search of the houses. Watters informed them they would be searching for three African-American suspects, one of whom owned a registered handgun. The possibility a suspect would be armed caused the deputies concern for their own safety. Watters had not obtained special permission for a night search, so he could not execute the warrant until 7 a.m. Around 7:15 Watters and six other deputies knocked on the door and announced their presence. Chase Hall answered. The deputies entered the house after ordering Hall to lie face down on the ground.
`The deputies’ announcement awoke Rettele and Sadler. The deputies entered their bedroom with guns drawn and ordered them to get out of their bed and to show their hands. They protested that they were not wearing clothes. Rettele stood up and attempted to put on a pair of sweatpants, but deputies told him not to move. Sadler also stood up and attempted, without success, to cover herself with a sheet. Rettele and Sadler were held at gunpoint for one to two minutes before Rettele was allowed to retrieve a robe for Sadler. He was then permitted to dress. Rettele and Sadler left the bedroom within three to four minutes to sit on the couch in the living room.
By that time the deputies realized they had made a mistake. They apologized to Rettele and Sadler thanked them for not becoming upset, and left within five minutes. They proceeded to the other house the warrant authorized them to search, where they found three suspects.”
Rettele, Sadler and Sadler’s son filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that their 4th Amendment rights had been violated by a reckless execution of the warrant. The recklessness was based on the failure to verify ownership records prior to the execution of the warrant and the failure to immediately recognize the mistake when they observed white subjects in the house rather than the black subjects they were seeking.
In finding that the officers’ actions did not violate the 4th Amendment, the Supreme Court first noted that in today’s society mixed-race households are common. Thus, the fact that officers immediately saw white subjects did not preclude the possibility that the subjects they were seeking were also present and posed a threat to the officers. The Court noted that previous decisions allowed officers to take “reasonable action to secure the premises and to ensure their own safety and the efficacy of the search.” ii The Court concluded: “The orders by the police to the occupants, in the context of this lawful search, were permissible, and perhaps necessary, to protect the safety of the deputies. Blankets and bedding can conceal a weapon, and one of the suspects was known to own a firearm, factors which underscore this point. The Constitution does not require an officer to ignore the possibility that an armed suspect may sleep with a weapon within reach…The deputies needed a moment to secure the room and ensure that other persons were not close by or did not present a danger. Deputies were not required to turn their backs to allow Rettele and Sadler to retrieve clothing or to cover themselves with the sheets. Rather, the risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.” This is not to say, of course, that the deputies were free to force Rettele and Sadler to remain motionless and standing for any longer than necessary. We have recognized that special circumstances, or possibly a prolonged detention might render a search unreasonable. There is no accusation that the detention here was prolonged. The deputies left the home less than15 minutes after arriving. The detention was shorter and less restrictive than the 2- to 3-hour handcuff detention upheld in Mena. And there is no allegation that the deputies prevented Sadler and Rettele from dressing longer than necessary to protect their safety. Sadler was unclothed for no more than two minutes, and Rettele for only slightly more time than that.
The Fourth Amendment allows warrants to issue on probable cause, a standard well short of absolute certainty. Valid warrants will issue to search the innocent, and people like Rettele and Sadler unfortunately bear the cost. Officers executing search warrants on occasion enter a house when residents are engaged in private activity; and the resulting frustration, embarrassment, and humiliation may be real, as was true here. When officers execute a valid warrant and act in a reasonable manner to protect themselves from harm, however, the Fourth Amendment is not violated.”
i Los Angeles County v. Rettele et al., 550 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1989 (2007).
ii See, Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981); and Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93 (2005).