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Supreme Court Decision Update - Samson v. California

supreme1.jpgIn today’s second decision, Samson v. California (PDF of the opinion), the Court again looks at issues of criminal procedure, as it did with the earlier Youngblood case. Here, however, the ruling is all about a procedural issue, rather than diverging into matters of appellate practice and procedure, and the ruling is simple – it’s okay for states to allow their parolees to be subjected to searches, even where the cops have no warrant, probable cause or suspicion, and these searches aren’t a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

QuizLaw Analysis: When you’ve got Justices Thomas and Scalia on one side, and Stevens and Breyer on the other, you know we’re talking about a individual rights and liberties. And since Thomas wrote the majority opinion, you know those rights are going to be chiseled down. Here, Thomas gives the okay on suspicionless searches of parolees. The dissent does seem to have some valid concerns about Thomas’ logic and, more importantly, the lack of any real checks and balances. It’s almost like Thomas is mimicking grandmotherly advice – “once a criminal, always a criminal.”

In California, there’s a law requiring all parolees to sign a written statement agreeing that they can be searched by parole officers or cops at any time, even when there is no search warrant or any probable cause. Samson, a California parolee, was searched by a cop who had no reason to conduct the search other then the fact that Samson was a parolee, and the cop found some meth. At his trial for possession, Samson moved to have the evidence suppressed, but the trial court said no. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, ruling that the suspicionless search was valid under California law and did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Now at the Supreme level, Justice Thomas delivered the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Alito. Thomas affirmed the California court, ruling that the suspicionless search of a parolee does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Delving into the issue, Thomas begins by noting that in deciding whether a search may have violated the Fourth Amendment, the question is whether it was reasonable under a “totality of the circumstances.” This, in turn, requires the court to consider how much the search intrudes on the searchee’s privacy and how much such searches are necessary in the furtherance of the government’s interests.

We’re talking about parolees in the current situation, who Thomas says are still under state-imposed punishment – for the remainder of their term, they’re under the state’s legal custody and are subject to various parole terms and conditions. Additionally, they have a lower expectation of privacy than someone on probation, since being paroled is much closer to being imprisoned on the “continuum” (again, because the prisoner is still within his jail term and is still subject to many rules). Here, Samson was well aware of California’s provision for the suspicionless search of parolees, since he signed an order agreeing to the condition. Thus, under the totality of the circumstances, a parolee such as Samson has no legitimate expectation of privacy. In addition, the State has a substantial interest in keeping a close watch on parolees since they’re “more likely to commit future criminal offenses” and because it needs to help reduce recidivism. California’s law helps address these interests, and it doesn’t matter that other states require suspicion before allowing parolees to be searched, nor does it matter that the cops are given apparent unbridled discretion (searches that go “too far” are prohibited by California’s ban on arbitrary, capricious and harassing searches, and Thomas thinks that offers enough protection to parolees). Thus, Thomas affirmed the California ruling because the search of Samson was valid.

Justice Stevens disagreed with Thomas and the majority, filing a dissenting opinion which Justices Souter and Breyer joined. He begins by acknowledging that parolees and probationers don’t get the same levels of protection as normal folk, but he doesn’t believe that prior case law “supports a regime of suspicionless searches, conducted pursuant to a blanket grant of discretion untethered by any procedural safeguards, by law enforcement personnel who have no special interest in the welfare of the parolee or probationer.” Stevens accuses Thomas, who shouldn’t be unfamiliar with such accusations, of “[c]ombining faulty syllogism with circular reasoning” in concluding that parolees are simply akin to prisoners with regard to their expectations of privacy, and he loathes this conclusion. Similarly, he’s not persuaded by any of Thomas’ reasons or arguments supporting the use of suspicionless searches, which is exactly what the Fourth Amendment was intended to but the kibosh on. Stevens especially doesn’t like Thomas’ emphasis on the idea that punishment is the basis for allowing prisoner searches, and he doesn’t think it matters that the parolee knows about the chance of suspicionless searches by nature of signing the parole agreement. Finally, Stevens thinks searches should be conducted by parole officers, or someone else who can help the convict reintegrate with society, and warrantless searches by cops do nothing to further this goal.

| Comments (2)


I wish I could think of something pithy and witty to say about this decision but I'm just stunned. I do agree that someone on parole is still considered a prisoner and does have some restrictions on their abilities to enjoy their life as they see fit, but for the Supreme Court to say that people on parole can be searched at any time, without a warrant or probable cause or any of the safeguards we are supposed to be afforded is just crazy.

Could Samson's lawyer have used a combination of the 4th Amendment and the 14th Amendment to claim that even though a prisoner he is granted equal protection from illegal searches under law?

Every day the news makes me a little sadder.

You can always choose to stay in jail. Having been victiminzed from a parolee I have 'zero' problems with this.