Wednesday, March 23, 2005
U.S. Justices Overturn Judgment Against Officers Over Search, Detention of Simi Valley Resident
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday overturned district court and court of appeals rulings holding Simi Valley officers liable for handcuffing a resident for an extended period of time during a search of the place where she lived.
In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that Iris Mena’s $60,000 verdict, including $40,000 in punitive damages, against two officers cannot stand. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for a five-justice majority, said concerns for their safety supported the officers’ decision to detain Mena in handcuffs for the two to three hours needed to execute a search warrant.
The ruling sends the case back to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for further proceedings on Mena’s claim that the officers violated her civil rights by keeping her handcuffed even after they completed the search. The high court could not resolve that issue, Rehnquist explained, because the Ninth Circuit did not address it.
The suit stemmed 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 Mena’s father. 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, and Mena and the others were questioned about their immigration statuses.
Police admitted detaining the residents, but said the detention was not as long as the plaintiff and others claimed.
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 Mena’s claim that the prolonged detention was unnecessary.
The Ninth Circuit panel agreed that the officers reasonably relied on the search warrant, which the Menas claimed was overly broad. But Judge Harry Pregerson, writing for the panel, said the officers could be held liable on allegations that the search and the detention were overly prolonged and that they improperly inquired into Mena’s citizenship status.
“[T]his was no ordinary search. The governmental interests in not only detaining, but using handcuffs, are at their maximum when, as here, a warrant authorizes a search for weapons and a wanted gang member resides on the premises. In such inherently dangerous situations, the use of handcuffs minimizes the risk of harm to both officers and occupants.”
The Ninth Circuit conclusion that officers committed a separate violation of Mena’s rights by questioning her about her immigration status while she was handcuffed, the chief justice went on to say, flowed from the faulty premise that the questioning was a seizure and thus had to separately justified as reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. So long as the detention was reasonable, Rehnquist declared, the officers were within their rights in questioning Mena.
The chief justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. Kennedy also authored a separate concurrence, emphasizing that handcuffed detainees, especially those who are not suspects, have a right to be free from excessive force but saying that the record did not establish that Mena suffered pain or excessive physical discomfort.
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote separately. He agreed that questioning Mena while she was handcuffed did not violate the Fourth Amendment, and that the jury verdict should be thrown out, but argued that the Ninth Circuit should have been given the opportunity to consider whether it was unreasonable to handcuff Mena for the duration of the search, as well as after the search was completed.
The case was argued before the high court by Paul Hoffman of Venice for Mena and by Carter Phillips of Washington, D.C. for the city. The federal government and several law enforcement groups, along with the League of California Cities, filed amicus briefs supporting Simi Valley, while the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense.
The case is Muehler v. Mena, 03-1423.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company