On September 6, 2002, a San Bruno police officer observed Donald Samson walking down the street with a woman and child. It was not the first time the officer had run into Samson.
Aware that Samson was out on parole, the officer suspected he may also be facing an outstanding warrant. After contacting radio dispatch, he confirmed there was no warrant and that Samson “was in good standing with his parole agent.” The officer stopped and searched Samson anyway.
Samson was later charged with possession of methamphetamine, found in a cigarette box in his left breast pocket. In court, he moved to have the evidence dismissed on the basis that the officer’s search had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Samson was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In 2005, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Samson’s case and in a 6-3 decision held that he “did not have an expectation of privacy that society would recognize as legitimate.” Samson v. California established that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit police from conducting a warrantless search of a parolee, even when there is no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Being on parole is basis enough.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who authored the majority opinion, cited earlier Court rulings regarding the status of parolees. “We further observed that, by virtue of their status alone, probationers ‘do not enjoy the absolute liberty to which every citizen is entitled.’”
The Court’s ruling partially relied on the precedent set out in Griffin v. Wisconsin (1987). There, a 5-4 Court held that a warrantless search of a probationer’s home did not violate the Fourth Amendment. A person committed to legal custody is therefore subject to that department’s rules and regulations.
In 2001, a unanimous Court in United States v. Knights ruled that the warrantless search of an individual on probation was supported by reasonable suspicion and authorized as condition of parole. The Court then concluded that based on ordinary Fourth Amendment analysis, reasonable suspicion is constitutionally sufficient to render a warrant requirement unnecessary.
The Roberts Court has not deviated from the Knights and Griffin rulings that established that Fourth Amendment protection is not as robust for parolees as it is for ordinary citizens. In his Samson dissent, however, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that neither of those cases “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.”
Justice Stevens pointed out that this is the first time the Court has upheld an entirely suspicionless search, unsupported by any special need. The majority’s line of reasoning, as Stevens criticized, synonymously groups parolees with prisoners.
“Prisoners have no legitimate expectation of privacy; parolees are like prisoners; therefore, parolees have no legitimate expectation of privacy. The conclusion is remarkable not least because we have long embraced its opposite.”
The first case to address legal protections for parolees was Morrisey v. Brewer in 1972. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that a hearing must be provided to determine the factual basis for parole violations. Morrisey clarified the distinction that a parolee’s condition is different to that of a prisoner. Justice Stevens, however, argued that the Court ignored this difference with respect to search.
For individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of their status as a prisoner or parolee, Fourth Amendment rights have been limited over the past 30 years. The Roberts Court is no exception to this trend. Once an individual is classified as an offender and is under authority of a parole or probation officer, the safeguard of suspicion no longer applies.