Court Upholds Random Searches

The Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that probation orders allowing defendants to be searched at the whim of law enforcement officers are permissible under the U.S. Constitution.

Star-Tribune capital bureau Tuesday, January 03, 2006

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that probation orders allowing defendants to be searched at the whim of law enforcement officers are permissible under the U.S. Constitution.

The decision stems from the arrest in December 2003 by Cheyenne police of Colin McAuliffe for refusing to consent to a random search. Such searches were authorized in a probation order handed down by the Laramie County Circuit Court because of an earlier drug violation.

The state’s highest justices, in a 4-1 vote, ruled that police did not violate McAuliffe’s Fourth Amendment right to be secure against unreasonable searches.

He challenged his arrest and the later finding of methamphetamine in his possession, but the majority of justices ruled last week that random searches allowed in probation orders are a constitutionally permissible method to help rehabilitate defendants and protect society.

Retired District Judge Kenneth Stebner, who participated in the case, filed a dissenting opinion stating there was no reasonable suspicion to conduct a search after McAuliffe was stopped for a traffic violation. Under the U.S. Constitution, some degree of suspicion is required before a search can be initiated regardless of the conditions of a probation order, Stebner said.

The case stems from May 1, 2003, when McAuliffe pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced to a year in jail. The sentence was suspended, and he was placed on one year’s probation.

The conditions of the probation included that he must submit to searches of his person, vehicle and residence at the request of law enforcement.

On Dec. 30, 2003, he was pulled over in Cheyenne by two police detectives for allegedly making two turns without activating his turn signals.

During the stop, the officers learned from a court official that McAuliffe was on probation and subject to the search conditions of the probation order. When asked about his probation status, McAuliffe denied he was still on probation and refused to consent to a search. He was arrested for interference with a peace officer.

During booking he produced a pipe loaded with methamphetamine. Later, he attempted to pass a small bag of meth to a woman who was leaving the facility, according to the opinion.

McAuliffe was then charged with attempted delivery of methamphetamine and taking a controlled substance into jail — both felonies — and misdemeanor drug possession.

He filed a motion to suppress the drug evidence, claiming the probation condition authorizing random searches and his arrest for refusing to comply with the condition violated his constitutional rights.

A district judge agreed to suppress the evidence, and the prosecutor asked the state Supreme Court to review the judge’s order.

The case boiled down to interpretation of a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court opinion known as United States v. Knights.

The majority of Wyoming justices ruled that probation conditions permitting random drug searches “pass Fourth Amendment muster” because of the balance needed between a defendant’s right to privacy and protection of society from future crimes.

Justice Michael Golden, who delivered the opinion for the majority, said that because the Circuit Court in May 2003 could have constitutionally deprived McAuliffe of any reasonable expectation of privacy had it ordered confinement, “common sense demands that the court is constitutionally permitted to impose that same deprivation while ordering a lesser punishment like probation …”

Stebner, in his dissent, pointed to portions of the U.S. Supreme Court case which appeared to cast doubt on whether “suspicionless” searches allowed by a probation order would satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” requirement.

“The Supreme Court’s references … leads me to conclude that although probable cause is not required, some quantum of individualized suspicion is nevertheless still necessary,” Stebner wrote.

He and other district judges, both retired and active, sometimes are asked to help decide Supreme Court cases when a justice is recused because of illness or a conflict.

Posted in Notable News.