Samson v. California

PETITIONER:Donald Curtis Samson
LOCATION:Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

DOCKET NO.: 04-9728
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 547 US 843 (2006)
GRANTED: Sep 27, 2005
ARGUED: Feb 22, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 19, 2006

Jonathan L. Marcus – argued the cause for Respondent
Robert A. Long, Jr. – argued the cause for Petitioner
Ronald E. Niver – argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

A police officer stopped and searched Samson on the street in San Bruno, California. The officer had no warrant and later admitted he had stopped Samson only because he knew him to be on parole. The officer found that Samson was in possession of methamphetamines. Samson was arrested and charged with drug possession in state court. At trial Samson argued the drugs were inadmissible as evidence, because the search had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion and the state supreme court declined to hear the case.


Did the Fourth Amendment prohibit police from conducting a warrantless search of a person who was subject to a parole search condition, where there was no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing and the sole reason for the search was because the person was on parole?

Media for Samson v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 22, 2006 in Samson v. California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 19, 2006 in Samson v. California

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has the announcement in 04-9728, Samson v. California.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeal of California, 1st Appellate District.

California law provides that every prisoner eligible for release on state parole, “shall agree in writing to be subject to search or seizure by a parole officer or other peace officer at any time of the day or night, with or without a search warrant and with or without cause”.

The California Court of Appeal determined that a suspicionless search of a parolee under this law is reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment as long as it is not arbitrary, capricious or harassing.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the California Court of Appeal.

We considered a similar search condition in United States versus Knight in 2001.

There, California required a probationer to, “submit his person, property, place of residence, vehicle, personal effects to search any time, with or without a search warrant, warrant of arrest or reasonable cause by any probation officer or law enforcement officer”.

Knight’s apartment was searched based upon reasonable suspicion of criminality and his status as a probationer.

Consistent with our general Fourth Amendment approach, we balanced the degree to which the search intruded upon his privacy interests and the degree to which it was needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.

We determined that Knight’s probationary status and his assent to the clearly set out probation search condition significantly diminished his reasonable expectation of privacy.

We determined that the state, on the other hand, had significant interests in combating recidivism and promoting the reintegration of probationers into society.

Accordingly, we held that the search of Knight’s apartment was reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Because the search at issue in Knight was predicated on both reasonable suspicion and probation status, we did not reach the question whether the search would have been reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, had it been solely predicated upon the condition of probation.

We reach that question today, although in the context of a parolee search.

On the continuum of state-imposed punishments, parolees have fewer expectations of privacy than probationers, because parole is more akin to imprisonment than probation is to imprisonment.

In light of Samson’s parole status and the unambiguous terms of the parole search condition to which he agreed, we conclude that he has a severely diminished expectation of privacy.

California’s interests, on the other hand, are substantial.

California paroles a significant number of prisoners, and that population has an extremely high recidivism rate that demonstrates the need for intensive supervision.

A requirement that searches be based on individualized suspicion would undermine the state’s ability to effectively supervise parolees and protect the public from criminal acts by re-offenders that would have both incentive and opportunity to conceal criminality under a suspicion-based system.

Balancing the parolee’s significantly diminished expectation of privacy with California’s substantial interests, we hold that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit a police officer from conducting a suspicionless search of a parolee.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Souter and Breyer join.