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California parolees can routinely be searched by police as a condition of their release from prison, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. By a 6-3 vote, justices said the 1996 law is a legitimate attempt by state officials to deal with a large population of repeat offenders who pose a danger to public safety. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said California has a “special governmental interest” to control its parolees, an interest that outweighs a parolee’s privacy. In California, most prisoners eventually receive parole. But before release, each parolee is required to consent in writing to searches by police during the term of their supervision. If they refuse, they are not allowed out of prison. Under the law, police can conduct such a search as long as it is not arbitrary, capricious or conducted to harass the parolee. Thomas said parolees do not have any “expectation of privacy that society would recognize as legitimate” because of the danger posed by California’s large recidivist population. “The state’s interests, by contrast, are substantial,” Thomas wrote, citing a 68-to-70 percent recidivism rate among California’s parolees. But Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in dissent, said the majority had “run roughshod” over previous court rulings on unreasonable searches and improperly allowed California to create another form of punishment for its prisoners. “What the court sanctions today is an unprecedented curtailment of liberty,” Stevens wrote on behalf of himself and Justices David Souter and Stephen Breyer. Stevens wrote that California has given its police “a blanket grant of discretion untethered by any procedural safeguards.” Only California allows parolees to be searched for no specific reason. Thirty other states and the federal government require parolees to submit to searches, but there must be reasonable grounds for the search to occur. In September 2002, a San Bruno, Calif., police officer spotted Donald Samson walking down a street with a woman and her 3-year-old son. The officer knew Samson was a parolee and suspected there was a warrant out for his arrest on a parole violation. The officer searched Samson, who then told him that the warrant had been “taken care of.” After confirming Samson’s assertion, the officer searched him again. Inside a cigarette box Samson was carrying, the officer found a plastic baggie containing methamphetamine. Samson was not charged with a parole violation. Instead, he was charged with drug possession, convicted and sentenced to seven years in state prison. California’s Court of Appeal upheld Samson’s conviction, rejecting his argument that a suspicionless search of a parolee violated the Fourth Amendment. The case is Samson v. California, 04-9728. Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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