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Citizen Occupants of Probationer's Residence May Be Lawfully Detained

By Michael Brodheim

A divided Ninth Circuit panel has held that police officers may lawfully detain the citizen occupants of a home during a probation compliance search.

Oscar Sanchez was incarcerated in state prison in 2003, when a spike in robberies in the Wilshire area of Los Angeles prompted the police department to conduct probation compliance checks on probationers who lived in the area and had prior arrests for robbery. Police records indicated that Sanchez was one such probationer, and therefore subject to warrantless searches. After verifying that Sanchez was not incarcerated in county jail, the police executed a warrantless probation search of the home where, according to police records, he then lived-- the home of his parents, Eva and Ruben Sanchez. Prior to initiating the search, the officers were repeatedly told by Eva that Oscar was in prison. They ignored those statements and instead ordered the Sanchez family to stand in their front yard (in their night clothes, in the cold, and in the dark) for approximately 45 minutes while officers searched their home for Oscar.

The family subsequently filed a § 1983 suit against the officers, claiming Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations of unlawful entry and search, excessive force and unconstitutional detention. The officers asserted qualified immunity with respect to each claim.

As to the first two claims, the district court agreed that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. It denied qualified immunity, however, as to the unconstitutional detention claim, and the officers filed an interlocutory appeal.

Relying on Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93 (2005), the Ninth Circuit reversed. In Muehler, officers executed a search warrant at a private residence; they placed Iris Mena and the other occupants of the home in handcuffs and detained them for three hours in a converted garage, under guard, as police searched for contraband. The Supreme Court held that officers executing a search warrant had the authority to detain the occupants of the premises while a proper search was conducted, regardless of whether or not the occupants appeared dangerous. The presence of the search warrant, the Ninth Circuit held, was not dispositive; it rejected the view that Muehler meant officers could take reasonable steps to secure the premises, and to ensure their safety as well as the efficacy of the search, only when the search was conducted pursuant to a search warrant.

This ruling is significant, PLN readers should note, because it limits the privacy expectations of law-abiding citizens whose only "crime" is that they share a home with a probationer (or parolee) who may be subject to warrantless searches. See: Sanchez v. Canales, 574 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Sanchez v. Canales