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U.S. v. Knights: Supreme Court Rules on Searches of Probationers by Police

NCJ Number
Perspectives Volume: 26 Issue: 3 Dated: Summer 2002 Pages: 39-43
Stanley E. Adelman J.D.
Date Published
5 pages
This article reviews the rights of probationers in comparison to the rights of citizens not under probation supervision and to those of persons in penal incarceration.
In the case, United States v. Knights, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a probationer’s apartment by a police detective, where the search was based on the detective’s “reasonable suspicion” that the probationer was engaging in criminal activity. It reaffirmed that probationers do not enjoy the same degree of constitutional protection against searches or seizures that other citizens do. The decision reaffirms the message that probation and parole enhance public safety by their ability to investigate suspected unlawful behavior and take action against violators, quickly and with relative informality. Probationers do not forfeit all their constitutional rights by their probation status. Probationers occupy an intermediate status, somewhere between the much greater freedom and rights enjoyed by citizens and the greatly reduced measure of freedom and constitutional rights for prisoners. Two significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S.868 (1987), and United States v. Knights define the extent or limitations of probationers’ Fourth Amendment rights. The Griffin case established the authority of probation officers to search probationers and their property without a warrant and without full probable cause. A probationer that commits a new criminal act is subject to two separate possible sources of criminal jeopardy: possible revocation and incarceration on the original conviction and possible conviction and incarceration on new criminal charges, or both. The issue of whether or not police officers are authorized to search probationers without warrants or probable cause was resolved with the Knights decision. However, probation and parole staff should seek advance legal guidance from prosecutors or from agency counsel where possible in situations where they have doubts as to the legality of an intended search. In addition to clarifying the law governing search and seizure of probationers, the Knights decision is an affirmation of the public protection role of community supervision. 2 endnotes