ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Reaffirm Legal Limits of Police Search and Seizure Powers

February 22, 2006 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In a case being argued today before the Supreme Court, the American Civil Liberties Union urged the Justices to reject an appeals court ruling allowing police to search parolees on the public streets without any reason to suspect wrongdoing.

“There are very limited instances when law enforcement can search a person without specific suspicion,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU, which filed a friend-of-the court brief in the case. “These limits protect all Americans from being searched based on little besides the whim of any officer.”

At issue in Samson v. California, No. 04-9728, is whether the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment permits a police officer to search a parolee on the public streets without any basis for suspicion. The ACLU said that upholding such a search under the Court’s established “special needs” doctrine “gives a blank check to police officers to conduct searches at their will; this flies in the face of the Court’s emphasis on the importance of minimizing the ability of officials to exercise discretion in an arbitrary manner.”

Donald Samson, the defendant in today’s case, was stopped and searched by a police officer on the public streets of San Bruno, California. The police officer knew that Samson was on parole but had no basis to suspect him of violating the law. Even assuming that parolees are subject to suspicionless search by their parole officers (for instance, via a urine test), the ACLU said the Court should not allow the same latitude to police officers going about their general law enforcement duties.

Under the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable search and seizure, law enforcement searches are only to be conducted when there is at minimum individualized suspicion, and more likely probable cause and a warrant. Exceptions to these requirements are called “special needs” and should only be invoked when meeting probable cause criteria is deemed completely impractical. Searches that have previously been upheld by the Justices have required that entire groups be searched or that searches be conducted randomly.

“If there is one rule governing this Court’s special needs jurisprudence, it is that government officers cannot have free rein to search whomever they choose, whenever, they choose, for whatever reason they choose,” Shapiro said. Citing the 2000 case of in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, in which the Justices rejected the Indiana state police’s practice of using roadblocks with drug-sniffing dogs, Shapiro noted that the Court has never upheld a law enforcement search program “whose primary person was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.”

The Supreme Court has found that some drug testing qualifies as a “special need” in instances when the search is not a means to a law enforcement end, but seeks to guarantee safety at schools, on the roads, or in the workplace. There are few other “special needs” circumstances, and to date the Court has never applied the distinction to an ordinary law enforcement situation in which the police target a specific individual without any basis for suspicion.

“The bottom line is that government cannot cut constitutional corners even in pursuit of a goal it identifies as being for the public good,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Reform Project, which co-authored the ACLU’s brief in today’s case.

The ACLU’s brief is online at

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