High court considers liability of an officer in a defective search

Wielder of a bad warrant might be held responsible for damages, justices hint

November 05, 2003|By Jan Crawford Greenburg | Jan Crawford Greenburg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Tackling a case that raises questions about how police carry out search warrants, several Supreme Court justices suggested yesterday that an officer who serves a bad warrant could be personally liable for damages.

In a wide-ranging argument that focused on homeowners' rights and police obligations, the justices appeared troubled by arguments that officers could conduct searches based on a defective warrant. Several suggested they thought allowing such searches would undermine the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which says warrants must specifically describe the items police are seeking and the places they intend to search.

The key legal question is whether an officer who relies on a defective warrant when conducting a search can be liable to the homeowners for damages. In puzzling over that problem, the justices touched on an array of issues as they sought to clarify how police go about executing warrants to search a person's home.

The case came about in 1997, when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Jeff Groh unknowingly relied on a defective warrant during a search for weapons in the Montana home of Joseph and Julia Ramirez. Although he had prepared the request for the warrant, Groh failed to notice that the document did not list the weapons sought. Instead, it merely described the Ramirez home. No weapons were found.

"No one reading this warrant could possibly figure out what this house was being searched for," Justice David Souter told Groh's lawyer, Richard Cordray. "The purpose of the Fourth Amendment was to make sure the officers at the scene knew how far they could go."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added, "This looks like what the Fourth Amendment was getting at."

The Fourth Amendment says search warrants should "particularly" describe the items to be searched and the persons or items that officers are seeking.

The Ramirez family sued Groh and other agents after the search, and a California-based federal appeals court ruled that the family could proceed with its litigation against Groh. The appeals court rejected Groh's argument that he was immune from being sued.

The agent had asserted he was immune because he was acting in good faith in his capacity as a law enforcement officer, and because the law was unclear.

Several justices, including conservatives Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, appeared deeply troubled by arguments by Cordray and a lawyer for the Bush administration that the warrant was constitutional, though it failed to list the items sought or describe where police could look for them.

Several were incredulous when Justice Department lawyer Austin Schlick insisted that Groh could have conducted the search even if he realized the warrant was defective.

"You're saying this warrant is sufficient?" asked Kennedy.

As Schlick answered yes, Justice Stephen Breyer put his hands over his face and groaned.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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