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Court Upholds Warrant Despite Wrong Address

October 17, 2000|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that police can search a house for evidence even if they list the wrong address on a search warrant, a decision blasted by defense attorneys.

The court overturned an appeals court decision that threw out evidence Brea police gathered in 1997 with a warrant full of errors--including the wrong address.

Although the police officer who requested the warrant went to the correct house and gathered evidence that led to a criminal conviction, critics said the mistake could have proven tragic.

"What if there were several copies of the warrant issued and half the team went to the wrong address?" said Orange County appeals lawyer William Kopeny.

He and others said the court should not condone such mistakes, particularly in the wake of recent tragedies in which police served search warrants at the wrong houses.

In June, the Los Angeles City Council voted to spend $775,000 to settle a lawsuit against Los Angeles police officers who raided the wrong house and roughed up an innocent 68-year-old man and his family.

Last year, Denver police fatally shot a Mexican immigrant after going to the wrong address to serve a search warrant. In Boston, a 75-year-old retired minister died of a heart attack after struggling with 13 heavily armed officers who stormed the wrong apartment.

Orange County Deputy Public Defender Kevin Phillips, an appeals attorney, said the Supreme Court should have given more weight to the potentially fatal consequences of such mistakes.

"You should have a right to be safe in your own home," said Phillips. "If someone just breaks into your house in the middle of the night, you're not likely to think, 'Oh, it's the local constable and he's here to protect me.' "

Federal appeals courts have upheld searches in which police listed incorrect addresses, but none in which so many details were wrong, lawyers said. A Brea police officer wrote in the warrant that the house he intended to search had two stories, when it actually had one. He said it was in Santa Fe Springs, when it actually was in an unincorporated strip of Los Angeles County.

Based on evidence collected during the search, a Los Angeles County judge convicted Luis Amador on possession of narcotics and weapons and on counterfeit credit card charges. Last year, a Los Angeles appeals court overturned the verdict, noting that the search was based on a warrant in which the officer got "just about everything wrong."

The errors, the lower court said, "betray a sloppiness that goes beyond mere drafting errors and constitutes . . . recklessness."

But Supreme Court Associate Justice Ming Chin disagreed Monday, noting in a unanimous opinion that there was little chance of the warrant being served on the wrong house. The warrant described the house's color accurately, Chin said, and it was served by an officer who knew which was the correct house.

Amador's lawyer, Judith Kahn, said she fears the court's opinion will have far-reaching effects in California. She said she will consider an appeal in federal court.

"The real possibility after a case like this is officers won't even bother getting accurate descriptions because they now know if they go to court and say, 'This was the place I intended to search,' that may be enough," Kahn said.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeffrey Ferguson, whose office reviews most search warrants served in the county, disagreed.

" . . . regardless of the Supreme Court's decision, I'm going to expect [officers] to be extremely accurate in their descriptions, because I believe we owe that to the public," he said.

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