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Court rules LAPD's detention of family was legal

The three-judge appeals panel said officers did not exceed their authority by ordering family outdoors as they searched the home for evidence linking an imprisoned member to a string of robberies.

July 31, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Oscar Sanchez's parents, sister, nephew and cancer-stricken grandmother were asleep when eight Los Angeles police officers pounded on the door of their Wilshire-area home before dawn on a December morning five years ago.

Eva Sanchez repeatedly told the officers that her son was in prison, unlatching the door only after the officers threatened to break it down. The family, except for the bedridden grandmother, was ordered outside in their nightclothes as officers searched, unsuccessfully, for evidence to connect the absent parolee with a string of robberies.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the officers had not exceeded their authority in detaining the Sanchez family while conducting what they believed to be a legal search of the home.

But the judges, in a 2-1 ruling, said their opinion was rendered "without deciding that the officers had probable cause" to believe Oscar Sanchez was at home, providing the legal justification for a search without warrant or notice.

For years, parolees have been required to sign waivers that allow searches of their homes. Whether the intrusion into the Sanchez home 10 months after the parolee was returned to state prison was legal is a question that will be addressed in a separate appeal, probably to the 9th Circuit, now that the technical issue of the officers' immunity from prosecution has been decided.

Thursday's split decision was based on a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another local challenge to police authority to detain third parties. The high court upheld the handcuffing and detention at gunpoint of an 18-year-old Simi Valley woman.

"The Supreme Court has concluded that officers executing a search warrant for contraband have the authority to detain the occupants of the premises while a proper search is conducted regardless of whether or not the occupants appear dangerous," reads the 9th Circuit decision written by Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, an appointee of President Clinton.

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins had already rejected the Sanchez family's claims that the officers illegally entered the home and used excessive force, leaving only the issue of unlawful detention for the 9th Circuit panel to review.

"It was just an elderly man, an old woman recovering from cancer, two women of middle age and a child present. There were no people who presented a threat and no basis for what they did, in my opinion," the Sanchez family lawyer, Marion Yagman, said of the police action.

She said there was "almost certainty we will be appealing on the search issue" once Collins enters final judgment.

Judge Harry Pregerson, appointed to the 9th Circuit by President Carter, dissented from the ruling, saying that he was "troubled by how law enforcement officers carelessly executed the warrantless probation search."

Visiting 7th Circuit Judge Richard D. Cudahy, another Carter appointee, joined Hawkins in the majority.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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