WASHINGTON â€” 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.
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.
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.
The couple’s “constitutional rights were not violated,” the court said in Los Angeles County vs. Rettele. The deputies “believed a suspect might be armedâ€¦. 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.”
John Burton, a Pasadena lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said his clients had left California and were living in Kansas.
“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.”