James J. Kilpatrick

Two petitions are now pending in the Supreme Court that once again raise the issue of misconduct by police. Would you vote to hear the cases?

These were the facts in Los Angeles County v. Rettele : In the summer of 2001, L.A. police began investigating a ring of thieves who relied upon false identities to work their scam. The investigation developed probable cause to believe that four of the suspects, all African-American, were working out of an address on Loneoak Avenue in the town of Lancaster, northeast of the city. Motor vehicle records placed two of the suspects at the residence. Another had registered a handgun to the same address. In a summer drive-by, police observed an African-American male who matched the description of yet another suspect.

Thus prepared with a search warrant, and led by veteran Dennis Watters, seven officers made their raid a little after 7 o'clock on the morning of Dec. 19. Unknown to the detectives, several months earlier Max Rettele, Judy Sadler and her teenaged son had moved into the Loneoak property. Police knocked. The boy came outside. At gunpoint, "He was then assisted to the ground." Four detectives rushed in.

From the record: "His gun drawn, Detective Campbell opened a door to a bedroom. Rettele and Sadler were in bed under the covers. They were told to get out of bed and show their hands. Sadler stood up ... Rettele went to another bedroom, naked, to get Sadler a robe. When he came back, he put on his sweat pants and Sadler put on the robe. Sadler was naked in front of Campbell for about one minute."

Detectives soon concluded that a mistake had been made. "Because all three residents were Caucasian and Watters was looking for African-American suspects, Watters decided to call off the search. He then explained why the deputies were there, apologized, thanked them for not getting upset, and swiftly left."

Rettele and Sadler sued the police. U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer granted summary judgment to the officers on their plea of qualified immunity, but a panel of the 9th Circuit voted 2-1 to reverse: "After taking one look at the plaintiffs, the deputies should have realized that plaintiffs were not the subjects of the search warrant and did not pose a threat."

In their petition to the Supreme Court, counsel for the police minimize the mistake: "Simply stated, a mild inconvenience or embarrassment does not equal a constitutional violation. ... Plaintiffs were not injured. Their privacy was not unduly invaded. ... The incident was minimally intrusive."

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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