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Departments : Point of Law

Holding Back Home Occupants

The Supreme Court now has guidelines for securing those present when searching a residence.

May 01, 2005  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

When you go into a suspect's home to execute a search warrant, it's not uncommon to find several people present, whether suspects, family members, or others. Sometimes, occupants may outnumber officers on the scene. This can create problems of safety and control, making it more difficult to carry out the search. Realizing this, the Supreme Court has provided guidelines on the ability of officers to detain, handcuff, and question occupants while a search takes place.

Michigan v. Summers

In a 1981 case, the court ruled that officers serving a search warrant for drugs could detain all of the occupants of the premises while searching. Although not all of the occupants would necessarily be suspected of the criminal behavior that was the target of the search, officers would not necessarily know this at the outset.

In Michigan v. Summers, the Supreme Court gave three reasons for allowing the detention of all those present when the search began: (1) "preventing flight in the event incriminating evidence is found," (2) "minimizing the risk of harm to the officers," and (3) facilitating the search, since occupants' "self-interest may induce them to open locked doors or locked containers to avoid the use of force."

To accommodate these three concerns, the court said that police should exercise "unquestioned command" of the search warrant scene. This meant a clear holding was necessary as to the detention of occupants: "We hold that a warrant to search for contraband founded on probable cause carries with it the limited authority to detain the occupants of the premises while a proper search is conducted."

The court did not say in Summers whether detained occupants could be handcuffed, or for how long, nor whether its ruling also applied to searches for evidence, as opposed to contraband. Nor did the court discuss the related issue of questioning such detainees. All of these issues have now been addressed in a 2005 Supreme Court decision.

Muehler v. Mena

Investigating a recent drive-by shooting, police in Simi Valley, Calif., obtained a warrant to search a suspected gang member's house for weapons, ammunition, and gang paraphernalia. Because of the high-risk nature of the case, SWAT made the initial entry. Four occupants, including Iris Mena, were handcuffed at gunpoint and taken into a converted garage, where they were detained for the two or three hours it took to finish searching. The search yielded one handgun and ammunition, other weapons, and gang paraphernalia.

Although none of the seized evidence implicated Mena in any crime, an INS agent who had accompanied the police officers briefly questioned the occupants about their immigration papers, and an officer asked Mena her name, date and place of birth, and immigration status. She was subsequently released.

Mena brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the police officers and their department, alleging violations of her Fourth Amendment rights. Following trial, a jury awarded her $60,000. The city and the officers appealed, first to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately to the Supreme Court.

The Detention Issue

The Ninth Circuit upheld the judgment against the police, ruling that Mena should have been released once it became clear to officers that she was not a suspect. That court ruled that Mena's detention was "objectively unreasonable," as a matter of law.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit's judgment. On the issue of the detention, the court cited its 1981 precedent in Summers and, making no distinction between searches for contraband and searches for evidence, pointedly disagreed with the Ninth Circuit: "Mena's detention was, under Summers, plainly permissible. An officer's authority to detain incident to a search warrant is categorical" (meaning absolute and unqualified, and not requiring any further justification).

Tags: Search Warrants, U.S. Supreme Court Cases, Legal Perspectives, Search and Seizure, Point of Law, Handling Evidence


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