Parolees in California do not enjoy a constitutional right to be free from suspicionless searches by law-enforcement officials.
Instead, they can be searched at any time, even when officials have no reason to believe that they may be involved in wrongdoing.
In an important privacy ruling with major implications for individuals on parole, the US Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 Monday to uphold a California law that requires all state prisoners to agree as a condition of release that they consent to warrantless searches by law enforcement.
"Examining the totality of the circumstances pertaining to petitioner's status as a parolee ... we conclude that petitioner did not have an expectation of privacy that society would recognize as legitimate," writes Justice Clarence Thomas in the majority opinion.
The state, Justice Thomas writes, has substantial interests in supervising parolees because they are "more likely to commit future criminal offenses."
He adds: "That some states and the federal government require a level of individualized suspicion is of little relevance to our determination whether California's supervisory system is drawn to meet its needs and is reasonable, taking into account a parolee's substantially diminished expectation of privacy."
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens writes that suspicionless searches are the kind of improper government action the Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent.
"What the court sanctions today is an unprecedented curtailment of liberty," Justice Stevens writes in a dissent joined by Justices David Souter and Stephen Breyer. "Combining faulty syllogism with circular reasoning, the court concludes that parolees have no more legitimate an expectation of privacy in their persons than do prisoners."
The decision stems from an incident on Sept. 6, 2002, in which a San Bruno, Calif., police officer happened upon Donald Samson. Mr. Samson was walking in a residential area with a friend and her 3-year-old son.
The officer, Alex Rohleder, knew Samson was on parole. He thought a warrant may have been issued for Samson's arrest. He conducted a pat-down search of Samson for weapons.
Officer Rohleder found no weapons and discovered from his dispatch officer that Samson was not wanted on any outstanding warrant. Nonetheless, the officer conducted a second, more thorough search. He found a plastic baggie containing methamphetamine inside a cigarette box in Samson's pocket. Rohleder then placed him under arrest for drug possession.
Samson's lawyer asked a judge to suppress the prosecutor's use of the drugs as evidence because they were the product of an illegal search. The judge disagreed. Samson was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. The state appeals court upheld the conviction, and the California Supreme Court declined to take up the case.
In affirming the conviction, Thomas said that people released from prison on parole are subject to a long list of terms and conditions that restrict their freedom, including mandatory drug testing and rules that prohibit them from associating with felons or gang members. Parolees must also report to parole officers and request permission to travel more than 50 miles from home.
"The extent and reach of these conditions clearly demonstrate that parolees like petitioner have severely diminished expectations of privacy by virtue of their status alone," Thomas writes.
Stevens says in his dissent that the high court's precedents had recognized a higher level of privacy protection for parolees than prison inmates. He says Monday's decision "runs roughshod" over those prior holdings.
"Once one acknowledges that parolees do have legitimate expectations of privacy beyond those of prisoners, our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence does not permit the conclusion, reached by the court here for the first time, that a search supported by neither individualized suspicion nor 'special needs' is nonetheless 'reasonable,' " Stevens writes.