Supreme Court upholds broad police search powers for probationers

Monday, December 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court unanimously upheld broad police powers to investigate new crimes by searching the homes of people on probation for previous offenses.

Monday's decision reversed a lower court finding that police investigating vandalism violated the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches by barging into the home of a man on probation for an unrelated drug crime.

The case concerns a northern California man suspected of a series of vandalism attacks on Pacific Gas & Electric transformers and other property.

Mark James Knights had a long history with the utility, which had accused him of stealing electric service and running out on his bill.

As a condition of probation for a drug conviction in 1998, Knights agreed to let police or probation officers search him, his home, car or other property at will.

People on probation are naturally a focus of greater law enforcement scrutiny, in large part because they are more likely to commit new crimes, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.

The government should not have to choose between rehabilitating a former criminal now on probation and trying to ferret out new criminal activity, Rehnquist wrote.

The government's ``interest in apprehending violators of the criminal law, thereby protecting potential victims of criminal enterprise, may therefore justifiably focus on probationers in a way that it does not on the ordinary citizen,'' Rehnquist wrote.

The ruling focused on the legitimacy of the search, rather than on the wider question of whether someone automatically waives constitutional protections if they agree to random searches as a condition of release on probation.

Rehnquist said there was no need to tackle that bigger issue, since the court had already found that the search of Knights' home did not violate his constitutional rights.

Sometimes called a ``Fourth waiver,'' the form Knights signed greatly limits his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search or seizure.

Knights contended police used his probationer status as a pretext to follow a hunch that he and a friend were behind an explosion and fire that damaged a PG&E transformer. The explosion knocked out telephone service to the Napa County Airport.

The early morning search of Knights' apartment was intended only to investigate the fire, and not to check up on Knights' rehabilitation for the drug conviction, he argued.

Police watched the pair for two days after the fire, and then went into Knights' apartment without a warrant. There, they found detonation cord, ammunition, liquid chemicals, books on chemistry and electric circuitry, bolt cutters and a brass padlock stamped ``PG&E.'' Police also said they found drug paraphernalia.

Knights was arrested and charged with arson conspiracy and other crimes.

A federal judge ruled that evidence seized at the apartment could not be used at trial, and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

The Justice Department and California's attorney general both asked the justices to reconsider lower court rulings that threw out bombmaking supplies other evidence seized during the search.

Knights did consent to searches when he agreed to terms of his probation, the appeals court found.

Two other states, Arkansas and Georgia, have rules similar to California's, according to a survey by the Rutherford Institute. The generally conservative legal group filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Knights' behalf.

Other states require police or probation officers to meet specific conditions before they can search probationers' homes.

The case is United States v. Knights, 00-1260.