Thursday, March 24, 2005

Case o' The Week: Mena & Fourth Amendment Searches, Interrogations

The Supreme Court extends bad law in Mena, available here. Writing for the majority, Rehnquist holds that an occupant of a house searched pursuant to a warrant can be detained, in handcuffs, and interrogated during that detention -- even if there is no cause to believe the occupant is involved in a crime. As discussed below, however, there may be some important limitations to this disappointing decision.

Players: 5' 2" Salvadorean immigrant Iris Mena.

Facts: LA cops got a warrant to search a house for guns and a gang member. Mena, 2005 WL 645221, *2. During the search, they found Iris Mena, asleep. Id. Although she had nothing to do with the shooting or gang, she was detained in a garage, handcuffed, and interrogated by INS. Id. She brought and won a civil rights suit, which was upheld by the Ninth Circuit. Id.

Issue(s): (1) Was it "objectively unreasonable to confine [Mena] in the converted garage and keep her in handcuffs during the search[?]" Id. at *3. (2) Did "the questioning of Mena about her immigration status constitute[] an independent Fourth Amendment violation[?]" Id.

Held: (1) "Mena’s detention for the duration of the search was reasonable under Summers because a warrant existed to search [the house] and she was an occupant of that address at the time of the search." Id. at *4. "The governmental interests in not only detaining, but using handcuffs, are at their maximum when, as here, a warrant authorizes a search for weapons and a wanted gang member resides on the premises. In such inherently dangerous situations, the use of handcuffs minimizes the risk of harm to both officers and occupants." Id. "In summary, the officers’ detention of Mena in handcuffs during the execution of the search warrant was reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment." Id. at *6.

(2) "[No] additional Fourth Amendment justifications for inquiring about Mena’s immigration status was required." Id. at *5. "Additionally, the officers’ questioning of Mena did not constitute an independent Fourth Amendment violation." Id. at *6.

Of Note: This is not groundbreaking bad law, but an extension of bad law. On the detention issue, the Court refused to evaluate the right to detain an occupant based on the "quantum of proof justifying detention." Id. at *4. In other words, the Court refused to require probable cause (or greater) to detain an occupant of a house searched pursuant to a warrant: that warrant is effectively carte blanche to detain house occupants. On the interrogation issue, the Court found that as long as the interrogation did not extend the detention, it was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at *5. That dog of a case, Illinois v. Caballes, comes back to haunt the analysis regarding police actions tolerated as long as the actions do not extend detention. Id. at *5.

The concurrences note, and Rehnquist for the majority ignores, that Iris Mena was all of 5'2" tall, guarded by two armed officers, marched barefoot through the rain to the garage, and handcuffed for several hours behind her back. Id. at *7 (Stevens, J., concurring). Meanwhile, the gang member sought was found at another address, cited for a little pot, and released! Id. at *9. In fact, reading the concurrence sounds like a directed verdict for Mena on remand – despite the fact that majority opinion announces what sounds like contrary holdings. Id.

How to Use: The limitations in Mena should be emphasized in Fourth Amendment cases. First, "this was no ordinary search." Id. at *4. The case involved, (i) a search warrant, (ii) for weapons, and (iii) a wanted gang member. Id. Because of these facts, the use of handcuffs "minimizes the risk of harm to both officers and occupants." Id. By contrast, less-compelling facts may not justify such heavy-handed treatment. Query also whether Mena should be limited to search warrant cases. Finally, Caballes and Mena illustrate a clear new goal for the defense bar – elicit facts on how police action, such as a dog sniff, or an interrogation, extended the otherwise lawful detention. That will be a new hurdle to jump in many Fourth Amendment cases.

For Further Reading: Think this case is limited to civil rights litigation? Think again: DOJ weighed in with an amicus for Petitioners in light of the "important interest" relating to federal searches. See amicus brief here.

Steven Kalar, Senior Litigator Northern District Cal. Fed Public Defender.


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