The Supreme Court has a month to go before it closes up shop for the summer. More than 20 argued cases remain to be decided. Even so, it’s time to close the nominations for Worst Opinion of the ’06 term. Are you ready?
Hands down, without further debate or intervening motion, the silver-plated, hand-engraved, fur-lined thundermug goes to eight members of the court for their witless pronouncement of May 21 in Case No. 06-605, Los Angeles County v. Max Rettele. Not a single redeeming word can be said for it.
The opinion understandably was unsigned. No one wanted to take the blame for it. Only Justice David Souter dissented, and he dissented molto pianissimo, not with a bang but a whimper. These were the facts of the case:
In the summer of 2001, Los Angeles County police began an investigation of a ring of con artists. These were not violent criminals. They were swindlers — sophisticated masters of the flimflam. They fleeced their victims through a scam based upon phony real estate loans.
The investigation soon centered upon a woman and three men who were living on Loneoak Avenue in Lancaster, Calif., some 30 miles north of downtown L.A. This much was instantly clear: All four of the suspects were African-American. One of them had registered a 9mm Glock handgun.
Early on the morning of Dec. 19, 2001, seven cops arrived at the house. They were armed with guns and a warrant. They knocked. To their surprise, a teenage boy opened the door. Gadzooks! The kid is white! No matter. Guns drawn, the posse rushed in. Two officers stayed outside to guard the dangerous lad. The others raced in, up the stairs, into a bedroom.
Max Rettele and Judy Sadler, the boy’s parents, were in bed, under the covers. I quote from the county’s petition to the high court:
"The deputies ordered respondents, who claimed they were naked, to show their hands and get out of bed. After approximately 30 to 40 seconds, respondents, who were in fact naked, were allowed to get dressed and cover up with a blanket.
"The gravamen of the ensuing lawsuit under 42 U.S. Code 1983 was twofold: (1) because the warrant called for the arrest of African-American suspects, the deputies should have immediately called off the search upon observing one or more Caucasians in the house; and (2) the deputies should not have ordered the suspects — who claimed to be naked while in bed and under the covers — to show their hands and get out of bed."
When they got out of bed, Rettele tried to put on some sweatpants but was prevented from doing so by a deputy. He was escorted, naked, to another bedroom. Meanwhile, "Sadler was naked in front of Officer Campbell for about one minute."
The episode in the bedroom, according to the county’s petition in the Supreme Court, lasted three or four minutes. By this time it should have been evident that the cops had bungled — but it was not evident to these cops: "The deputies opened doors and drawers. They looked inside cabinets and closets, through Christmas presents under a tree, under cushions and couches where plaintiffs sat, and in the kitchen. They cleared a poolhouse, a garage and the back yard."
Ultimately, the lead officer called off the search. As his troops departed, he apologized to his victims. "He thanked them for not getting upset, and swiftly left." Not getting upset? They were stunned. When they recovered, they sued for violation of their civil rights. They won in the 9th Circuit. The county appealed last October to the Supreme Court.
The Supremes sat on the petition until last week. Then they gave it what amounts to the bum’s rush, i.e., summary reversal in an unsigned opinion. The faceless justices recounted the embarrassing facts. They frowned upon the lower court’s conclusion, i.e., that the eager cops should at once have realized that the innocent occupants "were not the subjects of the search warrant and did not pose a threat to their safety."
Incredibly, the anonymous authors of the high court’s dismissive opinion concluded: "We need not pause long in rejecting this unsound proposition." True, the victims had suffered "real humiliation and embarrassment," but so what? The raid had not been "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment.
Lovers of privacy rights will reject the Supremes’ unbelievable disdain for the innocent victims of incompetent cops. In their name, Mr. Chief Justice, for the most outrageous opinion of the ’06 term, please accept this well-deserved award.