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Supreme Court Upholds Searches Without Warrants, Sets Precedent

By Charles Lane

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that authorities in California need not obtain a warrant before searching the homes of certain criminals who have been released on probation, a decision that strengthens the hand of law enforcement officials in the nation’s largest state and could encourage other states to adopt its practices.

At issue in the case of U.S. vs. Knights, No. 00-1260, were California rules under which judges often require convicted criminals to sign a document consenting to warrantless searches as a condition of being sentenced to probation.

After Mark James Knights was placed on probation in 1998 on a drug charge, police in Napa County searched his residence and found bomb-making material and other evidence linking him to arson and sabotage attacks aimed at an electric utility company. Indicted in federal court, Knights argued that the evidence could not be used against him because the search had violated his constitutional right to be free of unreasonable police intrusion.

Last year, the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with him, saying the probation order he signed should be construed to cover only searches related to supervising his probation, not investigations of new crimes.

But Monday, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the justices noted that the probation order clearly gave broad search authority to “any” law enforcement officer, and that Knights accordingly was entitled to a lower expectation of privacy than other citizens have.

“Just as other punishments for criminal convictions curtail an offender’s freedoms, a court granting probation may impose reasonable conditions that deprive the offender of some freedoms enjoyed by law-abiding citizens,” Rehnquist wrote.

Supporters of Knights’s position had argued that California’s practice is followed almost nowhere else in the country and that it exposes innocent people who might happen to be living in or visiting a probationer’s home to warrantless searches.