Smith v. City of Santa Clara - Ninth Circuit

Headline: Ninth Circuit panel holds that a warrantless probation search that affects the rights of a third party co-occupant was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances test when the probationer had been convicted of serious crimes, was suspected of committing another violent felony, and was still at large.

Areas of Law: Civil Rights; Fourth Amendment

Issue Presented: Whether the warrantless search of a residence was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances when police officers had probable cause to believe the residence was the home of an at-large probationer who recently participated in a violent felony, but a present co-occupant objected to the search.

Brief Summary: The Ninth Circuit panel affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the City of Santa Clara and several police officers (“the officers”), finding that the officers did not violate Plaintiff-Appellant Josephine Smith’s (“Josephine”) constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and California’s Bane Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 52.1. Josephine lived in a duplex with her minor granddaughter when the officers searched Josephine’s home over her objections. The officers were searching for Justine Smith (“Justine”), Josephine’s daughter.  The officers had probable cause to believe that Justine, a probationer, was involved in a recent automobile theft and stabbing. The Ninth Circuit panel applied a totality of the circumstances approach in finding the search was reasonable. The panel balanced the degree to which the search intruded upon Josephine’s privacy interest against the degree to which the search was needed for the promotion of a legitimate governmental interest. Specifically, the panel weighed the expectation of privacy Josephine had in her home with the need to protect the public from Justine causing further harm. The Court concluded that the warrantless search was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances because Justine posed a substantial threat to the public.

Significance: The Ninth Circuit panel held that probation searches involving co-occupants are not analyzed as consent searches, but rather under a totality of the circumstances approach.  It concluded that when police have probable cause to believe a person on probation for a serious felony had recently participated in a violent felony and was still at large, a warrantless search of a co-occupant’s home was reasonable and did not violate the co-occupant’s constitutional rights.  The Court stressed that its conclusion was limited to the facts, and it expressed no views as to how it would rule if the probationer had committed neither violent nor serious crimes and was not suspected of involvement in a subsequent crime.

Extended Summary:  Justine was on probation in connection with felony convictions for grand theft and forgery.  As a condition of probation, she agreed to warrantless searches of her home.  Justine gave the probation department a home address of a duplex that was also the home of her mother, Josephine.  Other records also linked Justine to the address. Subsequently, the officers found evidence connecting Justine to a car theft and stabbing.  They went to the address to conduct a probation search.  Josephine was present when the officers arrived.  She refused to consent to a search of the premises because the officers did not have a search warrant.  Over Josephine’s objections, they conducted a search but did not find Justine.

Josephine later sued the officers on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor granddaughter under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and California’s Bane Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 52.1. She alleged that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures because the officers searched their home without a warrant and without their consent. The district court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment on Josephine’s § 1983 claim on the ground of qualified immunity but denied the motion on the Bane Act claim because qualified immunity of the kind applied to § 1983 claims does not apply in Bane Act suits. At trial, the district court judge refused to instruct the jury that the officers’ needed her consent before searching her home and that Justine’s consent through her probation was not sufficient to make the search reasonable. The district court also denied Josephine’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.  It rejected Josephine’s argument that under Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006), the search of her home was unreasonable because she refused to provide consent and the officers did not have a warrant.  The jury returned a verdict for the officers and this appeal followed.

The Ninth Circuit panel concluded that the district court did not err in denying Josephine’s motion for judgment as a matter of law or in instructing the jury and affirmed.  The panel began its opinion with a discussion of Supreme Court search and seizure precedents. In United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974), the Supreme Court held that police may perform a warrantless search of a home when they have obtained voluntary consent from the occupant of a home, and the search will be valid against an absent, nonconsenting person so long as the police have the co-occupant’s consent. In Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, 875 (1987), the Supreme Court created another exception for warrantless searches of people released on probation or parole, finding that such searches give rise to “special needs” that allows “a degree of impingement upon the privacy that would not be constitutional if applied to the public at large.” Later, the Court found a warrantless search of a probationer’s home was reasonable when conducted by a sheriff’s deputy for the purpose of investigating a specific crime.  Instead of using the special-needs rationale or consent line of cases, it examined whether the search “was reasonable under [the Court’s] general Fourth Amendment approach of examining the totality of the circumstances, with the probation condition being a salient circumstance.” United States v. Knights, 534 U.S. 112, 121 (2001).  The Court in Knights used a balancing test to determine the reasonableness of the search: on the one hand, the degree to which the search intrudes upon a person’s own privacy and, on the other, the degree to which the search is needed for the furtherance of a legitimate government interest, all while keeping in mind that the probation condition significantly diminished Knight’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Id. at 118-20.

In the instant case, Josephine relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006),  in arguing the search of her home was unreasonable because she was physically present at the time and did not consent.  However the Ninth Circuit panel found that Randolph was a consent case, not one involving a probation search.  In a warrantless probation search the issue is whether a search that affects the rights of a third party was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.  This requires a court to balance the degree to which a warrantless search intrudes upon a third party’s privacy interest against the degree to which a search is needed in furtherance of a legitimate governmental interest. A non-probationer has a higher expectation of privacy in her home than a probationer. However the panel explained that the governmental interest here was significantly great because the officers had probable cause to believe Justine had recently participated in an automobile theft and stabbing and was still at large. The warrantless search was justified because of the need to find Justine and protect the public.  Thus, the heightened interest in locating Justine was sufficient to outweigh Josephine’s privacy interest in the home she shared with Justine.

The panel stressed that its holding is limited to the facts where police had probable cause to believe that the probationer, who was on probation in connection with serious offenses, had just participated in a violent felony and was still at large.  It expressed no view as to what it would decide in a case where the probationer’s offenses were neither violent nor serious, and the person was not suspected of involvement in a subsequent offense.

To read the full opinion, please visit: http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2017/11/30/14-15103.pdf

Panel: Mary M. Schroeder and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges, and Lynn S. Adelman, District Judge.

Argument Date: February 12, 2016.

Date of Issued Opinion: November 30, 2017

Docket Number: 14-15103

Decided: Affirmed.

Case Alert Author: Demis Camacho

Counsel: Lauren R. Coatney (argued), Christine Peek, Matthew Schechter, and James McManis, McManis Faulkner, San Jose, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

 

Sujata T. Reuter (argued) and Jon A. Heaberlin, Rankin Stock Heaberlin, Rankin Stock Heaberlin, San Jose, California, for Defendant-Appellee.

Author of Opinion: District Judge Lynn S. Adelman

Circuit: Ninth Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Philip L. Merkel

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