Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court heard arguments over whether Los Angeles sheriff's deputies went too far when they obtained a search warrant and seized all the guns from a home in South Los Angeles where a wanted violent gang member was thought to be living.
Usually, police officers are protected from lawsuits if they enter a home with a search warrant issued by a judge.
But last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in an 8-3 decision, cleared the way for Det. Curt Messerschmidt to be sued for the raid on an East 120th Street house because it said he did not have probable cause to believe the suspect had a wide array of firearms.
That rationale did not sit well with most justices during Monday's argument. They noted that the wanted suspect, Jerry Bowen, had threatened to kill his girlfriend and fired several shots at her with a sawed-off shotgun. He was also a member of the Mona Park Crips gang.
Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Anthony M. Kennedy said that a police officer would have good reason to seize all the firearms.
"What is wrong with a reasonable officer thinking: He's tried to kill her in the past using one gun. He's a member of a gang. He's very likely to have other guns, and [they] may be found in the home where we believe he's living?" Alito asked.
Moreover, said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the deputy's supervisor and a magistrate had approved the search warrant. Allowing the deputy to be sued for an overly broad search warrant "seems to me a pretty heavy burden to put on the cop on the beat," Roberts said.
Bowen had lived with the Millender family as a foster child, but he was not there when deputies carried out their predawn raid. He was later arrested at a nearby motel.
"The search terrified an innocent family and damaged their home" and sent 73-year-old Augusta Millender to the hospital, their lawyers told the court. She has since died, but her daughter has carried on the suit.
The case of Messerschmidt vs. Millender brought together some strange bedfellows when it reached the Supreme Court. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Assn. and the California Rifle and Pistol Assn. joined in supporting the Millenders, whose personal guns were seized. The Obama administration joined with Los Angeles County in arguing for the suit against the detective to be dismissed.
The 4th Amendment gives people a "right to be secure" in their homes and says "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause … and particularly describing … the persons and things to be seized." The 9th Circuit recited the words of the amendment in upholding the Millenders' suit against Messerschmidt.
But the justices have been wary of allowing lawsuits against police officers or federal agents who carry out a search once it has been approved by a magistrate.