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Home searches challenged

Supreme Court to review police actions, tactics

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider how far police can go in searching homes and questioning occupants without violating their constitutional rights.

Justices will review the case of two Simi Valley, Calif., officers ordered to pay $60,000 to a young woman for their actions in a 1998 search of her family's house.

The woman, Iris Mena, awoke at dawn to find an officer in a ski mask pointing a submachine gun at her head.

SWAT team members led the woman through rain to a cold garage, where she was kept in handcuffs and questioned for up to three hours while the home was searched.

A jury determined that her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures was violated, and the San Francisco-based Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

"She was unarmed, docile, and cooperative in every respect," the court said.

The appeals court also said the police did not have a right to question Mena's citizenship status or search her purse for immigration documents during the detention, both evidently done because of her apparent Hispanic ethnicity.

She was not a suspect in a crime, but police said they believed members of the West Side Locos gang, including a man suspected in a shooting, were inside the house.

Carter Phillips, the Washington lawyer representing the officers, told the Supreme Court in a filing that the appeals court decision hamstrings law officers.

"Mere questioning regarding a lawfully detained individual's immigration status is now a Fourth Amendment violation, and effective detention during the entire duration of a lawful and reasonable search is a clear violation of the Constitution," he wrote.

But Mena's lawyer, Paul Hoffman, said that police overreacted during the raid. At least 18 officers swarmed the house, he said, and they found no evidence of crimes in the room of 18-year-old Mena, a Salvadoran.

Police officer groups had encouraged the court to use the case to make clear that officers can handcuff and question people while searching their homes.

Also yesterday, the Supreme Court made it harder for people to try to later withdraw guilty pleas, in the case of a California man who pleaded guilty to drug charges and thought he would receive a briefer sentence than the 10 years he got.

The judge did not warn Carlos Dominguez Benitez that his plea agreement did not allow him to withdraw his admission of guilt if he didn't get the government-recommended sentence.

Justice David H. Souter, writing in the 9-0 decision, said that courts in considering a request to withdraw a guilty plea should decide whether a defendant can show with "reasonable probability" that an error influenced the plea.

The Bush administration had argued that the case was important because more than 95 percent of convictions in federal courts last year involved guilty pleas.

The Supreme Court also took these actions yesterday:

Rejected a lawsuit that said federal officials did not do enough to safeguard 2 million acres of potential wilderness in Utah from off-road vehicles.

Declined to consider an appeal in which former US hostages in Iran say a $33 billion lawsuit over their detention and torture more than 20 years ago should be reinstated.

Ordered a lower court to determine whether Holocaust survivors and heirs could sue the French national railroad for transporting 72,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

Ruled that Arizona taxpayers have constitutional grounds to sue in federal court on claims that the state's income tax credits, granted for donating money for private school education, might improperly promote religion.

Ruled that a former dispatcher for the Pennsylvania State Police can sue over sexual harassment even though she quit her job. However, the court sent the case back to lower court, saying police did not have an adequate opportunity to defend itself.

Refused to consider whether government rules intended to make local phone service more competitive should be temporarily saved. Consumer groups say prices for phone customers are likely to shoot up when the rules expire today.

Agreed to hear an appeal from a former girls' basketball coach who says federal law gives him a right to sue on claims he was unjustly fired after complaining that his players received inferior facilities and equipment than the boys' teams.

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