Samson v. California

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Opinion [Justice Thomas]
Dissent [Justice Stevens]




certiorari to the court of appeal of california, first appellate district

No. 04–9728. Argued February 22, 2006—Decided June 19, 2006

Pursuant to a California statute—which requires every prisoner eligible for release on state parole to “agree in writing to be subject to search or seizure by a parole officer or other peace officer … , with or without a search warrant and with or without cause”—and based solely on petitioner’s parolee status, an officer searched petitioner and found methamphetamine. The trial court denied his motions to suppress that evidence, and he was convicted of possession. Affirming, the State Court of Appeal held that suspicionless searches of parolees are lawful under California law and that the search in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because it was not arbitrary, capricious, or harassing.

Held: The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit a police officer from conducting a suspicionless search of a parolee. Pp. 3–12.

(a) The “totality of the circumstances” must be examined to determine whether a search is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Knights, 534 U. S. 112, 118. Reasonableness “is determined by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which [the search] intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.” Id., at 118–119. Applying this approach in Knights, the Court found reasonable the warrantless search of a probationer’s apartment based on reasonable suspicion and a probation condition authorized by California law. In evaluating the degree of intrusion into Knights’ privacy, the Court found his probationary status “salient,” id., at 118, observing that probation is on a continuum of possible punishments and that probationers “do not enjoy ‘the absolute liberty’ ” of other citizens, id., at 119. It also found probation searches necessary to promote legitimate governmental interests of integrating probationers back into the community, combating recidivism, and protecting potential victims. Balancing those interests, the intrusion was reasonable. However, because the search was predicated on both the probation search condition and reasonable suspicion, the Court did not address the reasonableness of a search solely predicated upon the probation condition. Pp. 3–5.

(b) Parolees, who are on the “continuum” of state-imposed punishments, have fewer expectations of privacy than probationers, because parole is more akin to imprisonment than probation is. “The essence of parole is release from prison, before the completion of sentence, on the condition that the prisoner abides by certain rules during the balance of the sentence.” Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U. S. 471, 477. California’s system is consistent with these observations. An inmate electing to complete his sentence out of physical custody remains in the Department of Corrections’ legal custody for the remainder of his term and must comply with the terms and conditions of his parole. The extent and reach of those conditions demonstrate that parolees have severely diminished privacy expectations by virtue of their status alone. Additionally, as in Knights, the state law’s parole search condition was clearly expressed to petitioner, who signed an order submitting to the condition and thus was unambiguously aware of it. Examining the totality of the circumstances, petitioner did not have an expectation of privacy that society would recognize as legitimate. The State’s interests, by contrast, are substantial. A State has an “overwhelming interest” in supervising parolees because they “are more likely to commit future criminal offenses.” Pennsylvania Bd. of Probation and Parole v. Scott, 524 U. S. 357, 365. Similarly, a State’s interests in reducing recidivism, thereby promoting reintegration and positive citizenship among probationers and parolees, warrant privacy intrusions that would not otherwise be tolerated under the Fourth Amendment. The Amendment does not render States powerless to address these concerns effectively. California’s 60-to70-percent recidivism rate demonstrates that most parolees are ill prepared to handle the pressures of reintegration and require intense supervision. The State Legislature has concluded that, given the State’s number of parolees and its high recidivism rate, an individualized suspicion requirement would undermine the State’s ability to effectively supervise parolees and protect the public from criminal acts by reoffenders. Contrary to petitioner’s argument, the fact that some States and the Federal Government require a level of individualized suspicion before searching a parolee is of little relevance in determining whether California’s system is drawn to meet the State’s needs and is reasonable, taking into account a parolee’s substantially diminished expectation of privacy. Nor is there merit to the argument that California’s law grants discretion without procedural safeguards. The concern that the system gives officers unbridled discretion to conduct searches, thereby inflicting dignitary harms that arouse strong resentment in parolees and undermine their ability to reintegrate into society, is belied by the State’s prohibition on arbitrary, capricious, or harassing searches. And petitioner’s concern that the law frustrates reintegration efforts by permitting intrusions into the privacy interests of third persons is unavailing because that concern would arise under a suspicion-based system as well. Pp. 5–12.


Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C.J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter and Breyer, JJ., joined.


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