WASHINGTON – Federal agents were looking for a rocket launcher and automatic weapons when they pulled up to a house on a rural Montana ranch, but the warrant they carried mentioned nothing about the suspected cache.
The omission was a mistake by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (search) Agent Jeff Groh, and it could cost him. Unless the Supreme Court says otherwise, Groh will face a lawsuit for damages for violating the constitutional rights of Joseph and Julia Ramirez, who lived on Moose Creek Ranch.
During a lively argument session Tuesday, several justices seemed unwilling to let Groh off the hook.
The Constitution's Fourth Amendment (search) bans "unreasonable searches and seizures," and requires that police have probable cause to get a warrant. Warrants, the amendment says, must be supported by an affidavit and must "particularly describ(e) the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
"Why not just apply the constitutional provisions?" Justice Sandra Day O'Connor asked Groh's lawyer. "Why couldn't the agent be responsible for checking the warrant?"
The 1997 search followed a tip about illegal grenades and other weaponry. The search warrant (search) should have listed the weapons or other items agents were looking for. Instead, it contained only a description of the Ramirez house.
Lawyer Richard Cordray told the justices that while the warrant itself omitted mention of weapons, all the specifics were listed on the affidavit used to win court approval of the search.
Justice David Souter was unimpressed.
The affidavit, he noted dryly, was back at the courthouse while agents were knocking on the door.
Then it was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's turn.
"Here's a house, and there's no bound at all" on what police can look for or what they can seize, she said. "It looks like just what the Fourth Amendment was supposed to address."
Justice Antonin Scalia, a stickler for the exact wording of the Constitution, nonetheless tried to help Cordray dig out of a deepening hole. The case is less about the bad warrant than what the Ramirezes can do about it now, Scalia pointed out.
The Ramirez family sued Groh and others in federal court, alleging the search was unconstitutional and seeking financial damages.
Law officers are ordinarily immune from suits over their conduct on duty, but the high court has allowed exceptions when the officer violated someone's constitutional rights.
The question this time is whether the faulty warrant opened the door for a suit when there was no specific previous case that would have put Groh on notice that he was at risk.
The Bush administration supports Groh, arguing that a clerical error made in good faith should not leave federal agents personally vulnerable to a lawsuit.
A federal judge dismissed the suit on grounds that the law enforcement officers were immune, but the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the claim against Groh.
The appeals court said Groh violated the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures and was thus unprotected from being sued. Groh led the investigation and had a special obligation to reread the warrant for errors, the appeals court said.
The case is Groh v. Ramirez, 02-811.