Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Justices Rule Against Naked Homeowners Who Sued LASD
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday overturned a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that would have allowed a Lancaster couple who were rousted from bed, unclothed, at gunpoint to sue the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
The appeals court had ruled that deputies, who were executing a search warrant in connection with an identity theft investigation, may have violated Max Rettele and Judy Sadler’s Fourth Amendment rights by forcing them to get up. A divided panel said the deputies should have realized that the couple was innocent of any wrongdoing because the suspects were black and the plaintiffs are Caucasian.
Rettele and Sadler had purchased the house a few months before the December 2001 raid. The sheriff’s deputies were unaware of the sale, had two addresses for the suspects, and obtained a warrant allowing them to search both places.
After realizing that Rettele and Sadler were not involved and that no one else was on the premises, the officers apologized and left.
Retelle and Sadler testified that the deputies would not allow them to cover themselves with pants or a blanket, but acknowledged that the entire incident lasted only a couple of minutes before they were allowed to dress. The deputies said they realized that the white couple were not among the persons they were investigating, but did not know if they might be in cahoots with the fraudsters or if there were other, possibly armed, persons in the house.
In a per curiam opinion, the high court said the deputies’ concerns were objectively reasonable and summarily reversed the Ninth Circuit, writing:
“As the deputies stated in their affidavits, it is not uncommon in our society for people of different races to live together. Just as people of different races live and work together, so too might hey engage in joint criminal activity. The deputies, who were searching a house where they believed a suspect might be armed, possessed authority to secure the premises before deciding whether to continue with the search.”
While the circumstances were regrettable, the justices said, innocent persons may be inconvenienced by a lawful search. provided that the disruption is no more intrusive than is necessary.
“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,” the court said. “When officers execute a valid warrant and act in a reasonable manner to protect themselves from harm, however, the Fourth Amendment is not violated.”
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote separately, saying that the deputies were entitled to judgment on the issue of qualified immunity and that it was thus unnecessary to determine whether a Fourth Amendment violation occurred. Justice David Souter said the Ninth Circuit ruling, which came in an unpublished opinion, should be left standing.
The county was represented by Scott William Davenport of Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, the plaintiffs by Pasadena sole practitioner John Christopher Burton, Los Angeles County v. Rettele, 06-605.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company