Civil Liberties

Supremes to Victims of Wrong House Searches: Deal With It

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The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the police can break into your home, rouse you from sleep, hold you naked at gunpoint, and—even if you're completely innocent—you have no recourse, so long as the warrant was valid.

It was an 8-1 decision.

"Valid warrants will issue to search the innocent and people like Rettele and Sadler unfortunately bear the cost," the justices said in the unsigned opinion. "The resulting frustration, embarrassment and humiliation may be real, as was true here. When officers execute a valid warrant and act in a reasonable manner to protect themselves from harm, however, the 4th Amendment is not violated," the court concluded.

The police apparently didn't know that the suspects they were after no longer lived at the residence, and didn't bother to check to see that the house had been recently purchased by new owners several months earlier.  The new owners were white.  The suspects the police were looking for were black. And they were wanted not on charges related to violent crime, but for identity fraud.

The Hudson case basically gave police carte blanche to violate the knock-and-announce rule without having to worry about application of the exclusionary rule. This case says that innocent civilians should have to bear the humiliating, terrifying, and possibly dangerous costs of mistakes made by agents of the state. It's a horrible ruling.

This case wasn't a forced-entry raid; the couple's son let the police into the home. But given the wording of the opinion and the 8-1 vote, it will almost certainly encourage city and state governments to fight suits stemming from wrong door raids in the future, instead of settling with victims.

Neither ruling is consistent with a society that allegedly values individual rights, even without the express protections offered by the Fourth Amendment. This ruling in particular evokes Justice Scalia's flp aside in Hudson that the only purpose of requiring the police to give notice is to avoid the harm of "being seen in one's night clothes." That the Supreme Court can continue to issue rulings like this one in spite of the Fourth Amendment shows that the Castle Doctrine, freedom from unreasonable search, and privacy in general are all but dead in this country.

Seems to me, not only should the state not be given immunity, the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur ought to apply in these cases. I can't think of a more unreasonable search than for an innocent couple to be startled from sleep by armed men, then forced to stand naked in front of them while the police rifle through their belongings, trying to figure out if they got the right house. That, by definition, ought to be unreasonable. And the victims should be compensated. Both because they were genuinely harmed, and and as a deterrent to encourage the police to practice due diligence in future searches.