updated 6/14/2004 2:27:01 PM ET 2004-06-14T18:27:01

The Supreme Court agreed Monday 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 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. “She was unarmed, docile and cooperative in every respect,” the court said.

Appeals court sides with woman
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 Latino or Hispanic ethnicity.

She was not a suspect in a crime, but police believed that the home was occupied by members of the West Side Locos gang, including a man suspected in a shooting.

Carter Phillips, the Washington attorney 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 attorney, Paul Hoffman, said that police overreacted during the raid. There were at least 18 officers who swarmed the house, he said, and they found no evidence of crimes in the room of 18-year-old Mena, a Salvadorian immigrant.

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.

The case is Muehler v. Mena, 03-1423.

Also Monday, the Supreme Court made it harder for people to try to withdraw guilty pleas later, 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 case is United States v. Benitez, 03-167.

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