Supreme Court to rule on police searches Justices agree to decide if authorities must help owners retrieve property

May 05, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Police, in searching for evidence of crime, often seize property that turns out not to be needed in a prosecution. Do police have to do anything to help the owner get the property back? The Supreme Court said yesterday it will answer that question.

Taking on a case from the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina, the court agreed to spell out what, if anything, the Constitution requires police to tell property owners about the steps they can take to retrieve goods taken in a police search.

A federal appeals court based in San Francisco ruled last spring that owners of property seized by police during a search have a constitutional right to be told how to go about recovering the property once authorities decide not to use the property as evidence.

"Seizure of property," the appeals court said, "occurs to thousands of people of various levels of education, experience, and resources who should be clearly informed of the procedure for retrieving their property if it is not needed for the criminal proceedings."

West Covina, supported by 67 other cities, towns and counties in California, said local police and officials who are not lawyers should not have to dispense legal advice on matters outside their control.

It should be enough to satisfy the Constitution, and the property owners' interest, the cities said, if a procedure for retrieving the property does exist. It should be the property owners' obligation to learn about that procedure, and use it, lawyers for the cities contended.

The issue grows out of the ransacking by West Covina police of a family's home in the nearby town of La Puente. A boarder who had been living at that house was a suspect in a murder case, and police were looking for evidence of crime involving him.

They entered the family's home when no one was there and broke the doors and some personal items. Police left the entire dwelling in disarray after seizing $2,469 in cash and an address book belonging to the family, plus a few personal items from the suspect.

It took the family more than a year, through repeated procedural hassles, to get its property back. A Supreme Court ruling on their rights is expected sometime next year.

In another case, the court ruled 5-4 that federal courts should not write special rules that keep prison inmates from gaining a trial on their claims that a government official intentionally violated their rights.

The decision struck down a federal appeals court ruling that raised the standard prison inmates would have to meet to avert a pre-trial dismissal of their claims that the harms done to them were the result of some official's "evil motive."

The ruling revives, at least temporarily, a lawsuit by a District of Columbia prisoner claiming that a prison official retaliated against him for speaking to the press about prison conditions. The prisoner claimed that the official misplaced boxes of his personal belongings when he was transferred from prison to prison.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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