U.S. v. Knights

Decision Date10 December 2001
Docket Number001260
Citation151 L.Ed.2d 497,122 S.Ct. 587,534 U.S. 112
Parties UNITED STATES, PETITIONER v. MARK JAMES KNIGHTSSupreme Court of the United States
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

A California court's order sentencing respondent Knights to probation for a drug offense included the condition that Knights submit to search at anytime, with or without a search or arrest warrant or reasonable cause, by any probation or law enforcement officer. Subsequently, a sheriff's detective, with reasonable suspicion, searched Knights's apartment. Based in part on items recovered, a federal grand jury indicted Knights for conspiracy to commit arson, for possession of an unregistered destructive device, and for being a felon in possession of ammunition. In granting Knights's motion to suppress, the District Court held that, although the detective had "reasonable suspicion" to believe that Knights was involved with incendiary materials, the search was for "investigatory" rather than "probationary" purposes. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The warrantless search of Knights, supported by reasonable suspicion and authorized by a probation condition, satisfied the Fourth Amendment. As nothing in Knights's probation condition limits searches to those with a "probationary" purpose, the question here is whether the Fourth Amendment imposes such a limitation. Knights argues that a warrantless search of a probationer satisfies the Fourth Amendment only if it is just like the search at issue in Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, i.e., a "special needs" search conducted by a probation officer monitoring whether the probationer is complying with probation restrictions. This dubious logic that an opinion upholding the constitutionality of a particular search implicitly holds unconstitutional any search that is not like it runs contrary to Griffin's express statement that its "special needs" holding made it "unnecessary to consider whether" warrantless searches of probationers were otherwise reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Id., at 878, 880. And this Court need not decide whether Knights's acceptance of the search condition constituted consent to a complete waiver of his Fourth Amendment rights in the sense of Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, because the search here was reasonable under the Court's general Fourth Amendment "totality of the circumstances" approach, Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 39, with the search condition being a salient circumstance. The Fourth Amendment's touchstone is reasonableness, and a search's reasonableness is determined by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual's privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed to promote legitimate governmental interests. Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 300. Knights's status as a probationer subject to a search condition informs both sides of that balance. The sentencing judge reasonably concluded that the search condition would further the two primary goals of probation rehabilitation and protecting society from future criminal violations. Knights was unambiguously informed of the search condition. Thus, Knights's reasonable expectation of privacy was significantly diminished. In assessing the governmental interest, it must be remembered that the very assumption of probation is that the probationer is more likely than others to violate the law. Griffin, supra, at 880. The State's interest in apprehending criminal law violators, thereby protecting potential victims, may justifiably focus on probationers in a way that it does not on the ordinary citizen. On balance, no more than reasonable suspicion was required to search this probationer's house. The degree of individualized suspicion required is a determination that a sufficiently high probability of criminal conduct makes the intrusion on the individual's privacy interest reasonable. Although the Fourth Amendment ordinarily requires probable cause, a lesser degree satisfies the Constitution when the balance of governmental and private interests makes such a standard reasonable. See, e.g., Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1. The same circumstances that lead to the conclusion that reasonable suspicion is constitutionally sufficient also render a warrant requirement unnecessary. See Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326, 330. Because the Court's holding rests on ordinary Fourth Amendment analysis that considers all the circumstances of a search, there is no basis for examining official purpose. Pp. 4-9.219 F.3d 1138, reversed and remanded.


Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Opinion of the Court

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

A California court sentenced respondent Mark James Knights to summary probation for a drug offense. The probation order included the following condition: that Knights would "[s]ubmit his person, property, place of residence, vehicle, personal effects, to search at anytime, with or without a search warrant, warrant of arrest or reasonable cause by any probation officer or law enforcement officer." Knights signed the probation order, which stated immediately above his signature that "I HAVE RECEIVED A COPY, READ AND UNDERSTAND THE ABOVE TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF PROBATION AND AGREE TO ABIDE BY SAME." App. 49. In this case, we decide whether a search pursuant to this probation condition, and supported by reasonable suspicion, satisfied the Fourth Amendment.

Three days after Knights was placed on probation, a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) power transformer and adjacent Pacific Bell telecommunications vault near the Napa County Airport were pried open and set on fire, causing an estimated $1.5 million in damage. Brass padlocks had been removed and a gasoline accelerant had been used to ignite the fire. This incident was the latest in more than 30 recent acts of vandalism against PG&E facilities in Napa County. Suspicion for these acts had long focused on Knights and his friend, Steven Simoneau. The incidents began after PG&E had filed a theft-of-services complaint against Knights and discontinued his electrical service for failure to pay his bill. Detective Todd Hancock of the Napa County Sheriff's Department had noticed that the acts of vandalism coincided with Knights's court appearance dates concerning the theft of PG&E services. And just a week before the arson, a sheriff's deputy had stopped Knights and Simoneau near a PG&E gas line and observed pipes and gasoline in Simoneau's pickup truck.

After the PG&E arson, a sheriff's deputy drove by Knights's residence, where he saw Simoneau's truck parked in front. The deputy felt the hood of the truck. It was warm. Detective Hancock decided to set up surveillance of Knights's apartment. At about 3:10 the next morning, Simoneau exited the apartment carrying three cylindrical items. Detective Hancock believed the items were pipe bombs. Simoneau walked across the street to the bank of the Napa River, and Hancock heard three splashes. Simoneau returned without the cylinders and drove away in his truck. Simoneau then stopped in a driveway, parked, and left the area. Detective Hancock entered the driveway and observed a number of suspicious objects in the truck: a Molotov cocktail and explosive materials, a gasoline can, and two brass padlocks that fit the description of those removed from the PG&E transformer vault.

After viewing the objects in Simoneau's truck, Detective Hancock decided to conduct a search of Knights's apartment. Detective Hancock was aware of the search condition in Knights's probation order and thus believed that a warrant was not necessary.1 The search revealed a detonation cord, ammunition, liquid chemicals, instruction manuals on chemistry and electrical circuitry, bolt cutters, telephone pole-climbing spurs, drug paraphernalia, and a brass padlock stamped "PG&E."

Knights was arrested, and a federal grand jury subsequently indicted him for conspiracy to commit arson, for possession of an unregistered destructive device, and being a felon in possession of ammunition. Knights moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search of his apartment. The District Court held that Detective Hancock had "reasonable suspicion" to believe that Knights was involved with incendiary materials. App. to Pet. for Cert. 30a. The District Court nonetheless granted the motion to suppress on the ground that the search was for "investigatory" rather than "probationary" purposes. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. 219 F.3d 1138 (2000). The Court of Appeals relied on its earlier decisions holding that the search condition in Knights's probation order "must be seen as limited to probation searches, and must stop short of investigation searches." Id., at 1142 (citing United States v. Ooley, 116 F.3d 370, 371 (CA9 1997)).

The Supreme Court of California has rejected this distinction and upheld searches pursuant to the California probation condition "whether the purpose of the search is to monitor the probationer or to serve some other law enforcement purpose." People v. Woods, 21 Cal. 4th 668, 681, 981 P.2d 1019, 1027 (1999), cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1023 (2000). We granted certiorari, 532 U.S. 1018 (2001), to assess the constitutionality of searches made pursuant to this common California probation condition.

Certainly nothing in the condition of probation suggests that it was confined to searches bearing upon probationary status and nothing more. The...

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