This is an audio case brief of LA County, California v. Rettel, 550 U.S. 609 (2002). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.
From September to December 2001, one of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Deputies, Dennis Watters investigated a fraud and identity-theft crime ring. There were four suspects of the investigation. One had registered a 9–millimeter Glock handgun.
The four suspects were known to be African–Americans.
On December 11, Watters obtained a search warrant for two houses in Lancaster, California, where he believed he could find the suspects. The warrant authorized him to search the homes and three of the suspects for documents and computer files. In support of the search warrant an affidavit cited various sources showing the suspects resided at Rettele’s home. The sources included Department of Motor Vehicles reports, mailing address listings, an outstanding warrant, and an Internet telephone directory.
The validity of the warrant, or the means by which it was obtained is not disputed.
What Officer Watters did not know was that one of the houses (the first to be searched) had been sold in September to a Max Rettele. He had purchased the home and moved into it three months earlier with his girlfriend Judy Sadler and Sadler’s 17–year–old son Chase Hall. All three of whom are Caucasians.
On the morning of December 19, Watters briefed six other deputies in preparation for the search of the houses. Watters informed them they would be searching for three African–American suspects, one of whom owned a registered handgun. The possibility a suspect would be armed caused the deputies concern for their own safety. Watters had not obtained special permission for a night search, so he could not execute the warrant until 7 a.m. Around 7:15 Watters and six other deputies knocked on the door and announced their presence. Chase Hall answered. The deputies entered the house after ordering Hall to lie face down on the ground.
The deputies’ announcement awoke Rettele and Sadler. The deputies entered their bedroom with guns drawn and ordered them to get out of their bed and to show their hands. They protested that they were not wearing clothes. Rettele stood up and attempted to put on a pair of sweatpants, but deputies told him not to move. Sadler also stood up and attempted, without success, to cover herself with a sheet. Rettele and Sadler were held at gunpoint for one to two minutes before Rettele was allowed to retrieve a robe for Sadler. He was then permitted to dress. Rettele and Sadler left the bedroom within three to four minutes to sit on the couch in the living room.
By that time the deputies realized they had made a mistake. They apologized to Rettele and Sadler, thanked them for not becoming upset, and left within five minutes. They proceeded to the other house the warrant authorized them to search. There, they found three suspects. Those suspects were arrested and convicted.
Rettele and Sadler, individually and as guardians ad litem for Hall, filed this § 1983 suit against Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Deputy Watters, and other members of the sheriff’s department. They alleged that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an unreasonable search and detention.
Whether the officers search of the Rettele residence was done in an unreasonable manner.
In executing a search warrant officers may take reasonable action to secure the premises and to ensure their own safety and the efficacy of the search.
The Court of Appeals held that because Rettele, his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s son were white, and suspects which the officers were looking for were black, the deputies should have realized that Rettele, his girlfirned and her son, were not the subjects of the search warrant and did not pose a threat to the deputies’ safety.
But the Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of appeals.
Here is how the court explained its position:
When the deputies ordered respondents from their bed, they had no way of knowing whether the African–American suspects were elsewhere in the house. The presence of some Caucasians in the residence did not eliminate the possibility that the suspects lived there as well. As the deputies stated in their affidavits, it is not uncommon in our society for people of different races to live together. Just as people of different races live and work together, so too might they engage in joint criminal activity. The deputies, who were searching a house where they believed a suspect might be armed, possessed authority to secure the premises before deciding whether to continue with the search.
Next the court found that the officers by ordering Rettele and his girlfriend out of bed, and temporarily detaining them did not act unreasonably because officers executing a search warrant for contraband may detain the occupants of the premises while a proper search is conducted, and they may also take reasonable action to secure the premises and to ensure their own safety and the efficacy of the search.
Here is how the court explained its position:
The orders by the police to the occupants, in the context of this lawful search, were permissible, and perhaps necessary, to protect the safety of the deputies. Blankets and bedding can conceal a weapon, and one of the suspects was known to own a firearm, factors which underscore this point. The Constitution does not require an officer to ignore the possibility that an armed suspect may sleep with a weapon within reach.
The deputies needed a moment to secure the room and ensure that other persons were not close by or did not present a danger. Deputies were not required to turn their backs to allow Rettele and Sadler to retrieve clothing or to cover themselves with the sheets. Rather, the risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.
This is not to say, of course, that the deputies were free to force Rettele and Sadler to remain motionless and standing for any longer than necessary. We have recognized that special circumstances, or possibly a prolonged detention, might render a search unreasonable.There is no accusation that the detention here was prolonged. The deputies left the home less than 15 minutes after arriving.
And there is no allegation that the deputies prevented Sadler and Rettele from dressing longer than necessary to protect their safety. Sadler was unclothed for no more than two minutes, and Rettele for only slightly more time than that. Sadler testified that once the police were satisfied that no immediate threat was presented, “they wanted us to get dressed and they were pressing us really fast to hurry up and get some clothes on.
The Fourth Amendment allows warrants to issue on probable cause, a standard well short of absolute certainty. Valid warrants will issue to search the innocent, and people like Rettele and Sadler unfortunately bear the cost. Officers executing search warrants on occasion enter a house when residents are engaged in private activity; and the resulting frustration, embarrassment, and humiliation may be real, as was true here. When officers execute a valid warrant and act in a reasonable manner to protect themselves from harm, however, the Fourth Amendment is not violated.
Officers’ conduct did not violate Rettele, his girlfriend and his girlfriends son’s fourth amendment.