A law enforcement officer can be held liable for searching private property without a properly written warrant, even in a case in which the officer tried to get the warrant right, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The Washington Post said the ruling allows Joseph Ramirez to sue agent Jeff Groh of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because Groh searched a Montana ranch for illegal weapons based on a warrant that did not identify the arms he and his officers were seeking. Groh argued that he was guilty only of a clerical error. Seven justices concluded that the faulty warrant violated the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which requires warrants to describe the “person or things to be seized.” “Given that the particularity requirement is set forth in the text of the Constitution, no reasonable officer could believe that a warrant that plainly did not comply with that requirement was valid,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
The Supreme Court has carved out numerous exceptions to the warrant requirement but still expects police to comply with it in ordinary cases. “Even a pro-police court likes to say there are some standards the cops have to abide by, and this is an easy one,” said law Prof. William Stuntz of Harvard University. “It may be especially important, in a time when the law gives police a lot of leeway, to really enforce the standards that matter.”