The government conducted a four-month investigation of four African-Americans, suspected of committing fraud and identity theft. One of the suspects was known to be armed. The officers obtained search warrants for two homes where the suspects were believed to be living. Unknown to the officers, three months earlier, one of the homes had been sold to Mr. Rettele, who occupied the premises with his girlfriend and her son. They were all Caucasian. The officers executed the search warrant and, with guns drawn, encountered the three new occupants of the home. Mr. Rettele and his girlfriend were unclothed and not permitted to cover themselves for the first two minutes of the encounter. Within five minutes, the officers realized their mistake, apologized for the error and departed the premises. Mr. Rettele brought a lawsuit for the deprivation of his Fourth Amendment protections.
Whether the officers were reasonable in how they conducted the search of the home?
Yes. Officers are entitled to take reasonable precautions against acts of violence during the execution of search warrants.
The Court found the search reasonable because the officers had knowledge that one of the suspects was armed. Also, the officers had no way of knowing that, despite the fact that they discovered three persons not suspected of any crime, that dangerous persons were not within the premises as well. The Court has long held that “in executing a search warrant officers may take reasonable action to secure the premises and to ensure their own safety and the efficacy of the search.” The fact that the officers were in error in conducting the search did not make that search unreasonable. The Court noted “valid warrants will issue to search the innocent, and people like Rettele and Sadler unfortunately bear the cost. Officers executing search warrants on occasion enter a house when residents are engaged in private activity; and 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 Fourth Amendment is not violated.”
550 U.S. 609, 127 S. Ct. 1989 (2007)