- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on how long and by what means police are allowed to detain a person found at a house they are searching with a lawful warrant.

The answer is with handcuffs and for the duration of the search or perhaps longer just to be safe, said attorneys for two police officers found guilty in lower courts of violating a California woman’s rights while executing a 1998 search warrant.

Iris Mena was asleep in bed when a SWAT team broke down her door and cuffed her while they searched a compound where she lived — a house and series of motor homes suspected of serving as a safe house for gang members and illegal immigrants.

While police rounded up guns, ammunition and baseball bats with gang writing on them, Miss Mena was taken to a separate building on the compound and kept cuffed for the duration of the search. She was released after the search ended and police had determined she was a legal resident and not a gang member.

But Miss Mena, who was 18 at the time, thought her rights had been violated. Her attorneys have argued that even if police were entitled to detain her — which they can under special circumstances such as during the search of a suspected gang hangout — it was illegal for them to do so with handcuffs and without explaining why she was under arrest.

In 2001, a federal jury found the two officers who oversaw the search guilty of violating Miss Mena’s Fourth Amendment rights. They were ordered to pay her $60,000 in damages. A federal appeals court upheld the ruling.

The case was brought to the high court by Officers Darin Muehler and Robert Brill, both of the Simi Valley Police Department, who argue that their treatment of Miss Mena was justified by the special circumstances of the search.

The justices listened to the officers’ claim that substantial legal precedent allows police to detain occupants of any place being lawfully searched.

With Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, absent from the proceedings, the remaining eight justices appeared weighed down by the unique nature of the case.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested the high court must carefully consider whether the unusual circumstances of the search, particularly that it was being executed at a suspected gang safe house, allowed for the precaution of cuffing and detaining Miss Mena and others.

“This is a dangerous gang,” he said, adding that the thinking of the officers conducting the search was, “If we make a mistake in this, we’re dead.”

However, the lower court rulings hung over the justices’ questioning, with Justice John Paul Stevens asking whether the lawfulness of Miss Mena’s detention was “a question of fact or of law.”

“Is it one for judge or jury?” he asked.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested the finding of the lower courts may play a significant role in how the Supreme Court rules. “Don’t we have to give any weight at all to the jury’s finding?” she asked.

The justices steered away from questions about Miss Mena’s immigration status. Specifically, they did not to appear eager to rule on whether officers violated the terms of their gang-related search warrant when they went through her personal property to find her immigration papers.

Opinions in the case are expected in the spring.

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