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Parolee Search Policy Is Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that officers may conduct spot searches without reasonable suspicion of a crime.

June 20, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

Police officers can stop and search a parolee even if he has done little or nothing to arouse suspicion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 6-3 decision upholds a California law that allows the spot search of known parolees by law enforcement officers without reasonable suspicion of a crime -- the standard required in most other states.

"California's ability to conduct suspicionless searches of parolees serves its interest in reducing recidivism, in a manner that aids, rather than hinders the re-integration of parolees into productive society," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that requiring police to show they reasonably suspected wrongdoing is a shield "to guard against the evils of arbitrary action, caprice, and harassment." Stevens said that the majority merely paid "lip service" to the Constitution and branded the California law "an unprecedented curtailment of liberty."

The case concerned four-time convicted felon Donald Samson, who was searched by a San Bruno, Calif., police officer who recognized him as a parolee. The officer found a small amount of methamphetamine and arrested Samson.

He was convicted in 2003 of drug possession and sentenced to seven years in prison. He had argued that the officer violated his 4th Amendment rights, prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure.

Two-thirds of the roughly 130,000 parolees in California will be returned to prison within 18 months, according to statistics cited by the high court. Since 1997, parolees in California have been required to sign agreements consenting to warrantless, suspicionless searches upon their release.

"We have a big population, and a big problem," said Ronald E. Niver, who argued the case for the California attorney general's office. He noted Justice Antonin Scalia's statement during oral argument that "it required extraordinary measures."

Robert Long, the Washington, D.C., lawyer who argued Samson's case, said he believed the decision was wrong. Long said California law still bans searches that are arbitrary, capricious or harassing. But he said he expected that police could easily meet that weak standard if they wanted to search someone.

"The police officer said he was checking to see if this individual was violating any laws. He didn't have any reason to think he was violating any laws," Long said.

Lael Rubin, head appellate attorney for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, praised the decision. She said a contrary ruling could have seriously hampered police.

"Someone on parole has a much-reduced expectation of privacy," said Rubin, whose office participated in the case, which originated in the Bay Area. "He is told he must consent to a search at any point in time; he has knowledge of that in advance. He has no right to expect more."

Top legal officials for 22 other states that make it harder for police to search parolees had urged the Supreme Court to uphold California's tougher approach, so long as officers do not act arbitrarily or harass parolees.

"We think that it's a good idea," said Howard G. Hopkirk, an assistant Pennsylvania attorney general who filed a brief in support of California representing 22 states. Hopkirk said he did not know whether Pennsylvania or any of the other states would use Monday's decision to enact laws similar to California's.

"It's an important case, and it will help law enforcement officers perform their jobs more easily," he said.

But Robert Weisberg, director of the criminal justice center at Stanford University, said the decision means reasonable suspicion, which has long been the legal touchstone for allowable searches, "is no longer."

The court has allowed more and more general police searches, at airports, at the border and in schools, "tremendously expanding" the boundaries of allowable searches, Weisberg said. In prison, an inmate has no right not to be searched, and Monday's decision moves "parole status more in the direction of imprisonment status," Weisberg said.

"We see parolees, who are a very dangerous lot, as people who should be monitored and supervised," said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a San Francisco group that filed arguments supporting the state. "It's good for them and definitely good for public safety. They need to know they're not free," he said of parolees.

"This makes good sense," Rushford added. "If they can search people going on planes and into courthouses, it surely doesn't seem excessive."

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