Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit in mistaken search

May 22, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Mistakes sometimes happen, the Supreme Court said yesterday, and threw out a lawsuit brought by a white couple in Southern California who were rousted from bed and held naked at gunpoint by deputies looking for several black suspects.

The search of Max Rettele and his girlfriend, Judy Sadler, in their bedroom might have been an error, the justices said, but it did not violate their rights under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

Police obtain search warrants based on probable evidence, not "absolute certainty," the court said in an unsigned opinion. "Valid warrants will issue to search the innocent, and people like Rettele and Sander unfortunately bear the cost."

In December 2001, Los Angeles County sheriffs were looking for four black suspects in an identity-theft scheme. One of them was known to have a gun. When the deputies set out to raid their home in Lancaster, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles, they did not know the suspects had moved out three months earlier. Rettele had bought the home in September and lived there with Sadler and her 17-year old son.

At 7 a.m., seven deputies with guns drawn came to the door and were let in by the teenager.

In the bedroom, they ordered Rettele and Sadler to get up and to show their hands. The couple protested they were not wearing clothes, but the officers insisted they stand naked next to the bed for a minute or two.

After a few minutes, the deputies admitted they had made a mistake, apologized and left.

Rettele, a civilian employee of the Defense Department, and Sadler, a real estate manager, sued the police, contending the search was an unreasonable invasion of their privacy.

A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled for the police and rejected their claim, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived it in a 2-1 decision and said a jury should decide whether police violated the couple's rights.

Los Angeles County lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that deputies should not be subject to suits for carrying out a lawful search of a home.

Without bothering to hear arguments, the justices agreed and ruled for the deputies.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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