Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, January 15, 2004


Page 3


Ruling Permitting Suit Over Simi Valley Search Allowed to Stand


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday denied en banc review of a ruling that allows the owners of a Simi Valley home occupied by several low-income families to sue more than a dozen city police officers for what the plaintiffs claim was an illegal search.

A majority of the court’s unrecused active judges did not vote to hear the city’s petition for an enlarged panel, the court said in a brief order. The court does not release results of voting on en banc calls, but seven judges signed on to two separate dissenting opinions.

The suit stems from a 1998 raid on a house on Patricia Avenue. The raid grew out of the investigation of a gang-related drive-by shooting.

The investigating officers said they relied on a statement by Anthony Romero, brother of a suspect, that his brother lived in the “poor house” owned by Jose Mena. The owner’s daughter, Iris Mena, lived there full-time, and other rooms were rented to unrelated borders.

The police, who said they had evidence that Romero’s brother Raymond had the weapon used in the shooting, obtained a warrant allowing them to search for, among other things, “[d]eadly weapons, specifically firearms including ammunition, casings, holsters and cleaning equipment, knives and accessories such as sheaves; [and] evidence of street gang membership or affiliation with any street gang.”

The investigators, along with a SWAT team, executed the warrant during the early hours of Feb. 3, 1998. The officers later swore that they announced themselves and received no response before employing a battering ram in order to enter the office.

Iris Mena disputes the police account. She alleges that she was in bed when the police entered her room, and that they grabbed and handcuffed her, detained her in her room for the length of the search, then took her and other residents to the garage where she was handcuffed and detained for another three hours.

Police also contacted the Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose agents came and interrogated Mena and other residents about their immigration status.

The officers admitted detaining the residents, but said the detention lasted only an hour and a half. In court papers, they asserted that “a reasonable officer at the scene could have believed that keeping the four detained residents handcuffed and detained together for the duration of the search was reasonably necessary to avoid danger to the officers and residents, reduce the risk of flight, and avoid interference with the search.”

U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz of the Central District of California, however, said there was sufficient evidence to support a trial on the plaintiffs’ claim that the officers went too far by forcing themselves into the locked rooms of residents who they had no reason to believe were gang members or in possession of weapons.

That ruling was affirmed last February by a panel made up of Judges Harry Pregerson and Stephen Reinhardt and Senior Judge Glenn L. Archer of the Federal Circuit, sitting by designation.

The panel agreed that the officers reasonably relied on the search warrant, which the Menas claimed was overly broad. But Pregerson, writing for the panel, said the officers could be held liable on allegations that the search and the detention of Iris Mena were overly prolonged, that they needlessly ransacked the home and destroyed the plaintiffs’ property, and that they improperly inquired into Mena’s citizenship status.

Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, joined by Judges Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, Richard Tallman, Alex Kozinski, Consuelo Callahan, and Jay Bybee, dissented from the denial of rehearing en banc.

The panel’s holdings “unreasonably interfere with sensible law enforcement and are unsupported by precedent,” Kleinfeld wrote. 

“No reasonable police officer would have imagined” that he or she needed individualized suspicion before asking a person detained during the execution of a search warrant about her immigration status, “and no police officer ought to be prevented from asking about citizenship under these circumstances,” the judge said.

The detention of Mena during the execution of the warrant, he added, was consistent with Supreme Court precedent.

Judge Ronald Gould, in a separate dissent joined by Kozinski and Tallman, acknowledged unease about the length of the detention but said the officers should be given the benefit of the doubt because they had legitimate safety concerns.

The Menas were represented by James S. Muller of Los Angeles, the city by Karen K. Peabody of the Santa Barbara firm of Carrington & Nye.

The case is Mena v. City of Simi Valley, 99-56720.


Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company