WASHINGTON - Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday reacted skeptically, even sarcastically, when it was argued that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms could search a Montana ranch with a warrant that contained a description of the property but no particulars about what agents were looking for.
Justice Stephen Breyer compared the warrant to one authorizing police to “go to the Empire [State] Building and seize the building.”
But it was unclear whether the justices would be willing to punish the agent in charge of the search - which failed to turn up any weapons or explosives - by subjecting him to a federal lawsuit for damages.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures” and says that search warrants must “particularly [describe] the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
In 1997, ATF agent Jeff Groh, after being told by informants that Joseph Ramirez and his family possessed an array of “automatic firearms” and “destructive devices,” applied to a magistrate for a warrant to search their ranch. The suspected weapons were itemized in Mr. Groh s application for the warrant and a supporting affidavit but not in the actual warrant, although it did refer to the affidavit as providing probable cause for a search.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the defective warrant violated the Fourth Amendment and that, as leader of the search, Mr. Groh s failure to scrutinize the warrant deprived him of the “qualified immunity” to lawsuits the courts generally have extended to law-enforcement officers for actions in the line of duty.
Yesterday, most justices seemed to regard the illegality of the Montana search as a no-brainer. Vince Kozakiewicz, a lawyer for the Ramirez family, encountered little resistance to his argument that the warrant was “nonsensical” in failing to itemize what was being sought.
Arguing for Mr. Groh, Ohio lawyer Richard A. Cordray said the warrant was part of “one package” that included the affidavit. He suggested Mr. Groh s failure to proofread the warrant fell under a “good faith” exception to the Fourth Amendment.
But Mr. Cordray barely had begun to speak when Justice Sandra Day O Connor asked him, “What does the Constitution require?” Her rhetorical question referred to the Fourth Amendment s demand that a warrant include particulars.
Justice David H. Souter observed that, in demanding specifics of what was to be searched, “the Fourth Amendment says the warrant, not something attached.”
But if a majority of the court seemed inclined to regard the search as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, there was less apparent agreement about whether Mr. Groh should be stripped of his immunity to a lawsuit from the Ramirezes.
Justice Antonin Scalia scoffed at the suggestion that the Fourth Amendment requires police to read a warrant to whom it is served, noting such protections date to a time when many people could not read. Offering a helping hand to the Ramirezes lawyer, Justice O Connor interjected: “You don t have to argue the homeowner s right to see the warrant to win this case.”38.89037 -77.03196