Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, July 31, 2009


Page 1


Court: Police Not Liable for Detaining Probationer’s Family


By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer


The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that six Los Angeles police officers could not be held liable for detaining the family of a probationer, including an elderly woman with cancer and a 4-year-old boy, during a search of their home.

Assuming that the officers had probable cause to believe the probationer was at home, the divided panel ruled that the detention of Eva Sanchez, Ruben Sanchez, Carmen Rodriguez, and Maria Socorro Figueroa was not a violation of their clearly established constitutional rights. 

Judge Harry Pregerson agreed with U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins of the Central District of California’s determination that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity as to the plaintiffs’ unlawful detention claims, but her order was reversed by visiting Senior Judge Richard D. Cudahy of the Seventh Circuit and Judge Michael Daly Hawkins.

The plaintiffs claimed that Los Angeles Police Department’s Career Criminal Detail began conducting probation compliance checks on probationers with prior robbery arrests living in the Wilshire area around December 2003 due to an increase in robberies in that area. 

As a condition of release, every probationer in California is required to submit to search of his person, property and residence at any time by a law enforcement officer, without a warrant or probable cause.

Officer James Canales allegedly obtained a list of Wilshire-area probationers from Deputy Probation Officer Wesley Woo which contained the name of Oscar Sanchez. His address of record was that of his parents, Eva and Ruben Sanchez.

Probationer List

Although the officers apparently reviewed and verified the accuracy of the records and cross-referenced their lists against county jail records in order to eliminate probationers who were incarcerated, Oscar Sanchez was in state prison at this time and remained on the list.

Canales and Woo joined Officers Ruben Gonzalez, William Lantz, Max Rede, and Alex Ronquillo at the home of Eva and Ruben Sanchez at 6 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2003 and awakened the occupants of the house by knocking at the door and shouting, the plaintiffs said.

Maria Socorro Figueroa, Oscar Sanchez’s sister, said she opened the door, but closed it when she saw the police. The police continued knocking loudly, demanding to see her brother, and threatening to break the door down if the family did not cooperate, she said.

Eva Sanchez claimed that she repeatedly told the officers in Spanish that her son was in jail, and at least one officer spoke Spanish and acted as a translator for the others. She eventually allowed the officers to enter and they allegedly ordered the family to wait outside while they searched the house.

Carmen Rodriguez, Oscar Sanchez’s cancer-stricken grandmother, was permitted to remain inside, but the other family members testified that they were forced to wait outside for a period of time ranging from 10 to 45 minutes before being allowed to return home.

Ruben Sanchez said he then produced a letter from his son as proof that Oscar Sanchez was in prison. The family said the officers departed about 10 minutes later.

The family subsequently filed suit against the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming unlawful entry and search, excessive force and unlawful detention in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Qualified Immunity

At trial, the officers asserted their actions were protected by qualified immunity, and Collins granted summary judgment in their favor with respect to the plaintiffs’ illegal search and excessive force claims.

But, finding “sufficient evidence to raise a triable issue as to whether, under the circumstances, a ‘reasonable person would have felt that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business,’ ” and concluding that Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit case law did not authorize the officers to detain “third parties” on the premises while conducting a probation compliance search, the district judge denied qualified immunity as to the unconstitutional detention claim.

Citing Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93 (2005) in his decision for the appellate court, Hawkins explained that police officers may constitutionally detain the occupants of a home during a parole or probation compliance search.

Although the district judge had found Muehler inapplicable because the Sanchez home was subject to a warrantless probation compliance search and the search in Muehler was conducted pursuant to a warrant, Hawkins reasoned that the distinction was without difference.

As the additional intrusion caused by the detention in both situations was “slight” and the justifications were “substantial,” and the law “should always be concerned to prevent the flight of criminals, ensure officer safety, and facilitate orderly completions of valid searches—warrant or no warrant,” Hawkins suggested that the justifications underlying Muehler would “be present in every valid home search.”

Additionally, since police officers may search the home of a parolee or probationer without a warrant and without running afoul of the Fourth Amendment so long as they have probable cause to believe they are at that parolee or probationer’s residence, Hawkins said “there is no need to be concerned that a neutral magistrate had not approved the reasonableness of the compliance search.”

If the officers had probable cause to believe Oscar Sanchez was at his parents’ home and if any detention took place, Hawkins concluded, that detention was constitutionally reasonable.

However Pregerson said he was “troubled” by the “careless” execution of the search. He noted that Oscar Sanchez had been incarcerated at the Tehachapi Correctional Institution for the 10 months preceding the search and the record did not show any effort by law enforcement to verify his whereabouts.

Pregerson asserted that such additional investigation “would have taken only minutes, and would have spared the Sanchez family the anxiety of being ordered to stand in their yard, in their night clothes, in the dark, and in the cold, under the curious eyes of neighbors for forty-five minutes while the officers searched their home for Oscar,” insisting that such “an egregious failure of due diligence on the part of law enforcement to the detriment of innocent parties should not be condoned.”

Marion R. Yagman and Stephen Yagman of Yagman & Yagman & Reichmann represented Oscar Sanchez’s family, while Deputy City Attorney Blithe S. Bock represented the officers.

The case is Sanchez v. Canales, 06-55584.


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