It’s amazing what little news the Supreme Court generates these days. As a criminal defense lawyer I have become used to the appellate courts backing police officers in questionable search or arrest situations (Atwater vs. Lago Vista).
Still the facts behind Los Angeles County vs. Rettele should shock even the most jaded criminal justice observer.
Police in LA County got a warrant to search a house for, get this… IDENTITY THEFT. Wow.. pretty scary stuff. Knocking before entry has been rendered uneccesary by the Supreme Court so the police break in unannounced.
The police swarm the bedroom and order the sleeping resident Rattelle and Sadler out of bed. The residents were both sleeping naked. The residents both try to get dressed but are ordered “not to move” at gunpoint.
The house had recently been sold. The suspects the police were looking for where black; they residents were white. The police made the residents stand naked for 15 minutes at gunpoint while they searched for ID theft evidence.
The residents sued arguing the search was “unreasonable” and violated their 4th amendment right. The Supreme Courts reply… Quit Whining, Law Enforcement is a tough job. The justices fall over themselves describing every danger an officer may face from weapons hidden in the bedsheets to hidden gunmen in the every nook and cranny.
Should police have to investigate the facts behind a warrant? Should the police have to use common sense during home invasion searches?
The SCOTUS answer-No and no. If an officers “probable cause” turns out to be wrong, it doesn’t matter. The search is still “reasonable”.
The majority concludes by telling us that “warrants will issue to search the innocent” and that officers face dangerous situations. No one is arguing that. The fact is that searching a residence should require some minimum level of fact checking. Police should be accountable for what would be a felonious action if conducted by a private citizen. At least the police did not kill an innocent person like the recent wrong house search in Atlanta.
I remember Criminal Procedure in law school. Case by case the 4th Amendment was stripped down to justify searches for drugs. I called it the Drug War exception to the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court has made a conscious effort to justify every search because they believe that fighting crime is more important than our liberty.
When I was a prosecutor I never worried about appeals of convictions or searches. The case law in Texas is clear that most errors are “harmless” or “waived”. Appellate courts see standing up for the Constitution as helping criminals and hurting law enforcement.
I believe the opposite. Holding police to higher standards will only help the public perception of law enforcement and lead to better prosecution in the long run. Searching homes is a dangerous situation, for the police and the residents. Before we allow police to break in unnanounced with guns drawn, we should require that they at least have verified the facts in the search warrant.
Thanks to The Agitator for inspiring this story.