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Supreme Court Handcuffing during Warrant Execution Upheld

On March 22, 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court re-examined the questions as to whether officers may detain occupants of a residence where they are executing a search warrant and whether handcuffing is appropriate in such circumstances. The case, Muehler v. Mena, ___U.S.___, 125 S.Ct. 1465 (2005), involved the execution of a search warrant for guns and other things following a gang-related drive-by shooting.

Following a drive-by shooting, investigators developed a suspect by the name of Romero, a known member of the “West Side Locos.” The investigators sought search warrants for two locations. The first location was 1363 Patricia Avenue, the home that the plaintiff in this case, Mena, occupied and the second location was Romero’s mother’s house. Romero had been known to rent a room from Mena. The officers decided to use the SWAT team for a dynamic entry into Mena’s house because they believed Romero was armed. The officers did not use a SWAT team for Romero’s mother’s home because Romero’s mom had cooperated with officers in the past.

The SWAT team executed the warrant at 7:00 a.m. on February 3, 1998. When they entered they awakened Mena from her bed at gunpoint and immediately handcuffed her. She was the sole occupant of the house. The officers took Mena to a converted garage where there was bedroom furniture. Three other persons that the officers had detained on the property joined Mena in the converted garage. The four individuals were guarded by two officers during the two to three hour search and remained handcuffed throughout the entire time. During the detention Mena was asked about her immigration status because the officers were aware that the “West Side Locos” gang was largely comprised of illegal immigrants.

Mena filed a lawsuit alleging that the handcuffing, which continued for two to three hours, was excessive and in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that questioning about immigration status was a separate Fourth Amendment violation. The trial in federal district court resulted in a verdict against the officers. The United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit upheld the trial court’s verdict – prompting this appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court reiterated its decision in Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981), where it held that police may detain the occupants of a residence where a search warrant is being executed. The Court noted that the reason for such detentions is preventing flight “in the event that incriminating evidence is found; minimizing the risk of harm to the officers; and facilitating the orderly completion of the search as detainees’ self- interest [against property destruction caused by search] may induce them to open locked doors or locked containers to avoid the use of force.” The Court asserted that the detention here was clearly permissible under Summers. Such detentions do not require any heightened suspicion such as reasonable suspicion: “Thus, Mena’s detention for the duration of the search was reasonable under Summers because a warrant existed to search 1363 Patricia Avenue and she was an occupant of that address at the time of the search.”

In dealing with the issue of handcuffing during such detentions the Court asserted: “Inherent in Summers’ authorization to detain an occupant of the place to be searched is the authority to use reasonable force to effectuate the detention… Indeed, Summers itself stressed that the risk of harm to officers and occupants is minimized ‘if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned control of the situation.’”

The Court noted that the application of handcuffs was a greater intrusion than that authorized by Summers, but then said that the search here was not an ordinary search. The police in this case were searching for weapons and a wanted gang member. “In such inherently dangerous situations, the use of handcuffs minimizes the risk of harm to both the officers and occupants… Though this safety risk inherent in executing a search warrant for weapons was sufficient to justify the use of handcuffs, the need to detain multiple occupants made the use of handcuffs all the more reasonable.”

The Court also rejected Mena’s argument that, even if the use of handcuffs was initially appropriate, her continued detention in cuffs for 2-3 hours was excessive. The Court concluded: “However, the 2-3 hour detention in handcuffs in this case does not outweigh the government’s continuing safety interests. As we have noted, this case involved the detention of four detainees by two officers during a search of a gang house for dangerous weapons. We conclude that the detention of Mena in handcuffs during the search was reasonable.” The Court further concluded that asking Mena about her immigration status did not constitute a Fourth Amendment violation since it was mere questioning and did not by itself prolong her detention.

The concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy is important in this case because it swung the majority and thus has some weight in consideration of police operations. Justice Kennedy began by asserting: “I concur in the judgment and in the opinion of the Court. It does seem important to add this brief statement to help ensure that police handcuffing during searches becomes neither routine nor unduly prolonged.” Justice Kennedy pointed out that the use of handcuffs is a use of force and therefore in all cases must be objectively reasonable. He noted that if the search “extends to the point when the handcuffs can cause real pain or serious discomfort, provision must be made to alter the conditions of detention at least long enough to attend the needs of the detainee. This is so even if there is no question that the initial handcuffing was objectively reasonable. The restraint should also be removed if, at any point during the search, it would be readily apparent to any objectively reasonable officer that removing the handcuffs would not compromise the officers’ safety or risk interference or substantial delay in the execution of the search.” While indicating that the 2-3 hour detention in this case approached excessive, Justice Kennedy concluded that it was not by pointing out that the detainees outnumbered the number of officers guarding them and that this could not be remedied without taking other officers from the search itself.

Key Points:

Officers may handcuff individuals present when they execute a dangerous search warrant at a residence.

Subjects may remain handcuffed during the remainder of the search.

Where the duration of the search is such that a person may be injured by continuous restraint, officers should find a way to accommodate the individual so that such injury does not occur.

Where it is readily apparent to officers that the person(s) pose no danger to them, officers should remove restraints.

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