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Justices throw out lawsuit on search of couple’s home

Times Staff Writer

Mistakes sometimes happen when police conduct home searches, the Supreme Court said Monday in throwing 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 may have been an error, and it was certainly embarrassing to them, the justices said. But it did not violate their rights under the 4th Amendment, which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” they added.

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 Sadler 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 a home in Lancaster, they did not know the suspects had moved three months earlier. Rettele had bought the home in September and lived there with Sadler and her 17-year-old son.

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At 7 a.m., seven deputies with guns drawn came to the door and were let in by the teenager. He was ordered to lie face down.

The deputies then entered the bedroom and ordered Rettele and Sadler to get up and to show their hands. They 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, filed suit against 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 U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived it in a 2-1 decision and said a jury should decide whether police violated the couple’s constitutional rights.

“After taking one look at [Rettele and Sadler], the deputies should have realized that [they] were not the subjects of the search warrant and did not pose a threat to the deputies’ safety,” said Judge Harry Pregerson, a veteran judge on the 9th Circuit. A jury might conclude the search was “unnecessarily painful, degrading or prolonged,” he said.

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

Without bothering to hear arguments in the case, the Supreme Court agreed and ruled for the deputies.

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The couple’s “constitutional rights were not violated,” the court said in Los Angeles County vs. Rettele. The deputies “believed a suspect might be armed.... 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.”

As for the innocent victims, “the resulting frustration, embarrassment and humiliation may be real, as was true here,” the court said in its seven-page opinion. Nonetheless, “when officers execute a valid warrant and act in a reasonable manner to protect themselves from harm, however, the 4th Amendment is not violated.”

Only Justice David H. Souter dissented from the order to reject the suit. In a separate statement, Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in the outcome without joining the court’s opinion.

John Burton, a Pasadena lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said his clients had left California and were living in Kansas.

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“I think this means we are in a dark period for the Supreme Court,” Burton said. “This was a case of incompetent officers finding themselves in the home of completely innocent people, and knowing they are not suspects, orders them out of bed stark naked. This is bullying, and it needs to be reined in.”

david.savage@latimes.com


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