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Warrantless searches upheld by Supreme Court

December 10, 2001
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Warrantless searches upheld by Supreme Court

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that authorities in California need not obtain a warrant before searching the homes of certain criminals who have been released on probation, a decision that strengthens the hand of law enforcement in the state and could encourage other states to adopt its practices.

At issue were California rules under which judges often require convicted criminals to consent to warrantless searches as a condition of being sentenced to probation.

After Mark James Knights was placed on probation in 1998 on a drug charge, police in Napa County searched his residence and found evidence linking him to arson and sabotage attacks aimed at a utility company. Knights argued that the evidence could not be used because the search had violated his constitutional right to be free of unreasonable police intrusion.

Last year, an appeals court agreed with him, saying the probation order he signed should be construed to cover only searches related to supervising his probation, not investigations of new crimes.

But yesterday, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the justices noted that the probation order clearly gave broad search authority to "any" law-enforcement officer.

"Just as other punishments for criminal convictions curtail an offender's freedoms, a court granting probation may impose reasonable conditions that deprive the offender of some freedoms enjoyed by law-abiding citizens," Rehnquist wrote.

Separately, the court said it will not review a lower court's decision permitting Duval County, Fla., public schools to allow high-school students to elect a classmate to deliver a "message" at graduation ceremonies.

Although the messages need not be religious, religion was the theme of all but four addresses delivered over three years at 17 public high schools in the county.

The school argued that students, not teachers or administrators, make the decisions about whether there will be an address, who will give it and whether it will be religious.

The justices offered no explanation for their decision. Still, their restraint was notable given their 2000 decision striking down a similar prayer program in some Texas schools.

In that case, the court held that prayer before high-school football games, read over a loudspeaker by a student chosen by fellow students, violated the prohibition on state support for religion.

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