The suspects were black. The occupants of the house were white, in bed and naked. Guns drawn, the sheriff's deputies ordered them out of bed anyway.
The homeowners sued the Los Angeles County sheriff's department for violating their civil rights. On Monday, the Supreme Court ended the lawsuit, saying the circumstances were regrettable but not an affront to the Constitution.
Max Rettele and Judy Sadler were in bed when officers, carrying a search warrant, entered their Lancaster, Calif., home in December 2001 in pursuit of a fraud and identity-theft crime ring. One suspect in the case had a gun registered in his name.
The deputies believed that three suspected identity thieves, known to be black, still lived there or at another house nearby.
Despite seeing white people in bed, the deputies ordered Rettele and Sadler to get up. Rettele tried to grab sweat pants, but was told not to. Sadler tried to cover herself with a blanket.
No more than two minutes elapsed before they were allowed to dress. A few minutes later, the deputies apologized for their actions, thanked the couple for not getting more upset and left.
A federal judge initially dismissed Rettele and Sadler's lawsuit, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should decide their civil rights claims.
"After taking one look at plaintiffs, the deputies should have realized that plaintiffs were not the subject of the search warrant and did not pose a threat to the deputies' safety," the appeals court said in a 2-1 ruling.
Ordering the couple out of bed was an undue invasion of their privacy, it said. No one disputed the validity of the warrant.
The Supreme Court, however, said that the deputies acted reasonably to ensure their safety.
"Officers executing search warrants on occasion enter a house when residents are engaged in private activity, and the resulting frustration, embarrassment and humiliation may be real, as was true here," the court said in an unsigned opinion reversing the appeals court. Only Justice David Souter thought the appellate judges got it right.
When the deputies left Rettele and Sadler, they found the three suspects at the other house the warrant authorized them to search.
The case is Los Angeles County v. Rettele, 06-605.