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Your Weekly Installment of Obtuse Legal Opinions May 23, 2007

Posted by Sobek in Law, Politics.

I haven’t seen this anywhere but the Supreme Court’s web site, so I guess maybe I’m the only person who thinks this is interesting, but as long as I’ve got keys to this place, I’m going to inflict the law upon you. The Court released an opinion on Monday in the case of L.A. County v. Rettele. [Link opens as a .pdf].

The L.A. police were investigating an identity theft ring, and they got a warrant to search a certain house. At 7:00 in the morning, they knocked and a 17-year-old answered. They forced him to the floor, held him at gunpoint, and moved into the house. They found a man and a woman in the bedroom, where they had until very recently been asleep. The cops ordered the couple out of the bed, ignoring their protests that they were naked, and refusing the man’s request to get something to cover himself and his girlfriend. The cops left them like that for about two minutes while they checked the rest of the house. Then they let the man get the woman a robe, and to put some pajamas on himself.

Soon thereafter, the cops realized they had the wrong house. Yes, they had just ordered to perfectly innocent people to stand butt-naked at gun point for two minutes while the man’s 17-year-old son was on the floor, also at gun point.

The couple sued the police, observing that the police were well aware that they had the wrong people, because the suspects named in the warrant were black, and the victims here are white. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, they argued, to figure out that the cops had the wrong people.

The trial judge dismissed the claims against the police. The Ninth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that the search and seizure was not unconstitutionally unreasonable.

I suppose in one sense, the couple got off easy. At least they weren’t murdered by a bunch of bounty hunters who had the wrong house:

“Bounty hunters wearing black ski masks and looking for a bail jumper kicked in the front door of a house, held children at gunpoint and shot a young couple to death in a case of mistaken identity, police said.”

“The shootings have focused renewed attention on Arizona laws that allow bounty hunters to break down doors and use guns to bring bail jumpers back to jail. They don’t need a court order or warrant. They don’t even need a license to do what they do, police said.”

“In Sunday’s shooting, the bounty hunters were looking for an out-of-state bail jumper who owed a California bond company $25,000. Police said one bounty hunter held a woman and her three children at gunpoint while others kicked down the door to the couple’s bedroom.”

Kicking down doors with guns blazing seems a bit of an over-reaction to jumping a $25k bail. And if I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of screams and a bunch of dudes in ski masks kicking down doors, what’s my first reaction going to be? Defend my family. In Arizona, that meant a 23-year-old kid and his 21-year-old girlfriend were murdered.


1. TXMarko - May 23, 2007

What does Arizona law say about shooting black-ski-masked Bounty Hunters in your home?

You would think, in both cases, that someone would have done their homework a bit more carefully before kicking down doors….

2. TXMarko - May 23, 2007

… and WHY do Bounty Hunters feel the need to wear ski masks?

3. BrewFan - May 23, 2007

I think its only going to be news if the Ninth *doesn’t* get reversed…

4. Pupster - May 23, 2007

The pdf link says the address was correct, but the suspects had moved out 3 months prior to the raid. So, yeah…right house, wrong naked suspects.

One suspect named in the warrant had a registered handgun, so that explains the un-holstered search of the premises. Not an unreasonable search, but certainly some pretty sloppy detective work.

5. geoff - May 23, 2007

These cases happen all the time, as Radley Balko is fond of pointing out. They are tragic and almost always unnecessary. Part of the problem is the militarization of the police.

It’s too bad that “search and seizure” includes no-knock raids and holding suspects at gunpoint in their homes. I don’t think you could ever feel secure after an incident like that.

6. geoff - May 23, 2007

BTW, Sobek – I like your obtuse legal opinions.

7. skinbad - May 23, 2007

Not lengthy enough!

8. The Police - May 23, 2007

You’re all on f’n notice!

9. sobek - May 23, 2007

“Not lengthy enough!”

I could lengthen it by talking about the law upon which the courts based their decisions, but I didn’t read the case very closely after the statement of facts. I was more interested in the story than in the legal details.

10. skinbad - May 23, 2007

This one isn’t really all that obtuse. It makes my blood boil. What’s wrong with the Supremes?

11. sobek - May 23, 2007

I can think of one or two things.

12. compos mentis - May 23, 2007

Damn. Can you imagine if those two procreated? You’d have a nest of fugly lookin’ rat babies.

13. sobek - May 23, 2007

Try to keep up, Compos. Everyone knows Ruthie’s real forbidden love is none other than Antonin Scalia.

14. compos mentis - May 23, 2007

You mean this guy?

15. Sobek - May 23, 2007

That’s the one. You know Ginsburg likes the freaky

16. eddiebear - May 23, 2007

Bush’s fault

17. Dave in Texas - May 23, 2007


18. harrison - May 23, 2007

I’ll have to show that photo to the judge. He is a customer at the camera store at which I slave.
A charming and witty gentleman.

19. skinbad - May 23, 2007

H, if I can call you that. Since you’re cooler than Horatio “Sugar” Caine, how about a review of the Nikon D40. I think this is a heck of a good marketing idea, btw:

20. skinbad - May 23, 2007

I can think of one or two things.

Certainly. But it was unanimous.

21. Sobek - May 23, 2007

I was just making a general comment, not talking about this case in particular.

22. harrison - May 23, 2007

Mr. Bad, the D40 (and D40x) is a good starter camera for someone that isn’t already married into the Nikon system. In an effort to build a smaller body they removed the autofocus drive system cam and went with an all electronic set-up.
When autofocus appeared in 1983 or so (invented by Minolta), Nikon choose to run it with a screwdrive so they wouldn’t have to change the lensmount. Canon picked a complete redesign of the mount to go with electronic AF with the motors in the lenses. Nikon has spent the last 20 odd years trying to catch up with Canon’s AF speed. There’s a reason that most of the pro sports photogs use Canon. Since then Nikon has come out with what they call the AF-S system, the S standing for Silent-Wave Motor. The D40 uses the AF-S lenses exclusively. This means that if you have older Nikon or third party lenses with the cam you won’t be able to use them on the D40 body. I shoot with the Nikon D200 mainly for the stronger, more “professional” build. Also I can use older lenses.
One of the main draws with Nikon is the processing of the images. Very nice color means vitually no post-production.

23. skinbad - May 23, 2007

Thanks Harrison.

24. Sobek - May 23, 2007

Geoff, I skimmed through that link, but it was a bit longer than I have time for. I will point out that Radley Balko generally doesn’t like anything to do with drug enforcement, and at least part of that article was inspired by the argument that police are too militarized when enforcing drug laws.

IMO Balko has shot his credibility in the foot a bit through his incessant harping on drug enforcement. That is, because he believes that no drug law should be enforced, it’s easy to guess how he will respond to any specific example of enforcement — by definition the police action will be an unreasonable search and seizure because all drug enforcement action is unreasonable. When that’s his baseline assumption, it’s hard to take him seriously when he comments on police policy in general.

As an example of this, there was a bit of a dust-up over at Ace’s a while back when Jack M criticized Balko’s criticism of the Bush administration’s focus on drugs (i.e. the fact that it chooses to enforce the law at all). In particular, Balko focused on Mary Beth Buchanan, a US Attorney in Pennsylvania, and complained about all the drug prosecutions she wasted money on. (In Balko’s view, any money spent on drug prosecutions is a waste, so again his argument loses force when focusing on any particular US Attorney). I pointed out that the published cases from Buchanan’s jurisdiction since she has been the boss simply don’t support his assertion that she’s over-focused on drug enforcement — almost all of the recent cases (past two years or so) are immigration enforcement appeals.

Libertarians like Balko have an anti-authoritarian streak coupled with their libertarian puritanism, manifested by a disdain for the police. I reject that anti-authoritarianism-as-a-rule approach, because cops are necessary, they do a tough job, and they need to be cut some slack in enforcing the law (e.g. running some douchebag off the road when he’s doing 90, even if it means crippling him for life). I recognize they make mistakes, and I favor rules to help prevent mistakes and abuses, as well as compensation when they go over the line. But they still need reasonable protection from legal challenges by people who simply don’t like cops.

25. Michael - May 23, 2007

Re: #22:

Harrison, was that supposed to be English?

26. harrison - May 23, 2007

What’s the problem now, Michael?

27. steve_in_hb - May 23, 2007

Sobek –

Not all police forces are the same. I’ve noticed a much higher level of petty power trips and cops being confrontational out here in SoCal than was present in Philly/NYC/NJ. So, while I agree with your general point that it’s a tough job that is too frequently second guessed by those not there, I give less slack to certain departments.

An acquaintance of mine is a LA cop, but used to be a state trooper back East. He says that they have such trouble getting enough candidates that they are forced to take in people he doesn’t consider emotionally suited to the job. As he puts it, “If someone spits in my face I put them down on the ground because they have to be put down on the ground, guys I work with do it because their manhood is threatened.”

He contrasts this with his experience back East where they would have 2,000 candidates for 100 jobs. So they would end up with very qualified people – multiple tours in the military, lots of education, etc. People emotionally suited to dealing with stress, numerous assholes, and violence while retaining a certain level of detachment.

His belief is that a number of the questionable shooting incidents here, while legally justifiable, were mishandled by inexperienced, semi-trained officers. Patterico had a whole discussion of how absurdly inexperienced the LA force is. Partially because the more senior guys get sick of being treated like shit by the city and find greener pastures.

28. Retired Geezer - May 23, 2007

I got my first ticket in 20 years a month ago. The cop was very pleasant. He could have gotten me for 2 other infractions but he let me slide.

I’ve always found that if you’re polite that works a lot better than being a jerk.

I’m amazed when people tell me stories about how they copped an attitude and were surprised when they got written up for a lot of infractions.


29. Sobek - May 24, 2007

“Not all police forces are the same.”

Sure. And forces can change over time, too. A friend of mine who’s a cop in LV (former SWAT) thought this was one of the best places to work when he started, but now no one wants to do their job. When a call goes out, some of them will deliberately drive the other way for a while so they aren’t the first responder.

My view is this: give the cop the benefit of the doubt because he has a tough job. But if you find out he was abusing his authority, bring the hammer down with righteous fury.

30. steve_in_hb - May 24, 2007

RG –

That was definitely my experience back East. But in SoCal they seem to have more of a confrontation seeking attitude.

I had one friend who was pulled out of his car because he asked why he was pulled over. The cop told him to shut up and hand over his license. When my friend reached towards his shirt breast pocket, the cop knocked him to the ground, cuffed him, and arrested him. Charged him with a bunch of stuff including attempting to pull the cop’s gun from the holster. This is the most genial guy you will ever meet, a self-admitted pussy. A Phd in Operations Research with his wife and newborn in the car – a geek, not a troublemaker.

Witnessed an accident where two middle aged Mexican men in a work pickup were stopped at a red light when two teenagers rear ended them. Cop driving by pulls over. Comment to the Mexicans dudes who were rear ended: “So what did you boys do here?”

I’m waiting in line at a club and some dude, angry because the bouncer won’t let him in, kicks the podium over in to me bruising the shit out of my ribs. When I rather saltily asked him what he was doing he called me every name in the book and challenged me to fight. As I moved towards him to accept his invitation he pulls out his badge, and tells me if I touch him I’m going to jail. My friends prevented me from testing his assertion.

31. eddiebear - May 24, 2007

I usually give cops the benefit of the doubt, but this story makes me mad

A friend of mine has several relatives who work for the City of St. Louis P.D. They are pretty honest and straightforward. But they do like to throw their authority around at times.

One time, while in college, said friend of mine went to the then Kiel Center (now called Scottrade Center) with a few other guys to watch a Blues hockey game. They had no tickets, but were going to walk up and try to get some seats. And if they failed, there were a few neat spots open to drink and watch the game on TV and chase women. Well, down at the Kiel Center, they run into a friend of their family who happened to be a Lt. on the force. He asked what they were up to, and when I told him, he said, “hold on. I’ll be right back.” No more than 5 minutes later, he comes back with seats 3 rows from the ice.

This guy ALWAYS got great seats at games and concerts. Now I know why.

32. eddiebear - May 24, 2007

Oh, and I understand and appreciate the irony of finding a story about St Louis Cops in Denver. I just refuse to link the St Louis Post Disgrace any more than I have to.

33. sobek - May 24, 2007

Incidentally, here’s a link to the story on the Ginsburg/Scalia thing:


34. geoff - May 24, 2007


Radley Balko has his excesses, but he also has a long history of posting on tragic mishaps resulting from no-knock raids. So regardless of your opinion about his libertarian views, you can find a fine collection of paramilitary police excesses at his site.

I’m a big fan of the police and social order, but paramilitary forces (particularly the BATF) and no-knock raids turn me off.

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