In Griffin v. Wisconsin and United States v. Knights, the Supreme Court upheld warrantless searches of the homes of probationers as justified by the Fourth Amendment’s “special needs” doctrine. According to the Court, probation conditions served two purposes: rehabilitation and protecting society from future criminal violations by the probationer. Under the creative logic of the special needs doctrine, these are purposes unrelated to crime control and thus the usual requirements of warrants and probable cause to not apply to law enforcement searches of probationers. Also, probationers (like school children) have a lesser Fourth Amendment privacy interest than ordinary citizens. The Supreme Court also noted that in both Griffin and Knights, the sentencing court had explicitly set out a probation condition that allowed the police to conduct a warrantless search the probationer’s home. But the Court left open the question as to whether or not the constitutionality of the warrantless search depended on such an explicit condition, or whether the non-law enforcement purpose and reduced privacy interests of probationers alone was sufficient to permit such searches.
The Fifth and Eleventh Circuits ruled that probationers could not object to warrantless searches of their home even if this was not an explicit condition of their probation, but recently the Fourth Circuit came down on the other side of this issue. In United States v. Hill, 13-4806 (4th Cir. 2015), the court held that the probationers’ knowledge of the warrantless search condition in Griffin and Knights were “critical” to the Supreme Court’s determination that the probationers had a diminished expectation of privacy in their home. (A pre-Griffin case in the Fourth Circuit had already come to this conclusion, and the Fourth Circuit determined that none of the Supreme Court case law since then had explicitly overruled this principle). Thus, the police officers violated his rights when (acting with what was likely only reasonable suspicion) they entered his home with a drug dog and found narcotics behind a ceiling tile in the bathroom.
This creates a circuit split on this issue, though the issue is narrow enough that it seems doubtful that the Supreme Court will take notice. Meanwhile, the Fourth Circuit decision is unlikely to result in a significant setback for the government; the most probable effect of the ruling will be that prosecutors in the Fourth Circuit will now simply seek to add a warrantless search condition to every probationary sentence.