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Liability in Searches Is Debated

March 04, 2003|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it would reconsider another ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, this one saying police officers can be held personally liable if they carry out a search with a warrant that is missing key facts.

Officers have a duty to proofread warrants, even after they have been approved by a judge, the appeals court said. And officers who slip up can be forced to pay damages to those who were subjected to the search, the 9th Circuit held last year.

A lawyer for a federal agent in Montana called this strict rule "radical" and "intolerable" in an appeal.

The justices said they would hear the case, Groh vs. Ramirez, in the fall.

Jeff Groh, an agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, received two reports that a ranch in western Montana owned by the Ramirez family had illegal weapons, including grenades and a rocket launcher.

He presented the evidence to a magistrate. But on the warrant, he mistakenly omitted the description of the items sought and instead typed a description of the Ramirez home. The magistrate approved the warrant, and Groh led a team of federal agents and county sheriffs to the ranch.

But the agents found nothing, and no charges were filed. Groh left a copy of the warrant with Julia Ramirez.

Afterward, a lawyer for the family noted the warrant was defective, and he sued Groh and the other agents for conducting an unreasonable search in violation of the 4th Amendment. A federal judge threw out the claim, but the 9th Circuit revived it. "The well-settled law of this circuit," the appeals court said, is that a search warrant must list all the items that are sought.

Because Groh failed in that duty, he can be held liable, the 9th Circuit said. But Groh's lawyer said no other appeals court has adopted such a rigid rule.

-- David G. Savage

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