The Keys to the Castle: A New Standard for Warrantless Home Searches in United States V. Knights

Article excerpt


The technicalities of the Fourth Amendment have permeated popular culture to such an extent that many Americans are conversant about basic constitutional search and seizure issues. (1) Some of that knowledge may have recently become largely obsolete. In United States v. Knights, (2) the Supreme Court held that a warrantless search of a probationer's apartment in which the search was based on reasonable suspicion and a condition of probation was that defendant would submit to such searches was reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. While the holding in Knights is wholly consistent with prior cases, the opinion introduces a new straightforward standard of reasonability for warrantless home searches that reflects an increased consideration of society's interest in aggressive prosecution of criminal activity. Critics have complained that modern Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has been a "vast jumble of judicial pronouncements that is not merely complex and contradictory, but often perverse." (3) With Knights, the Court has offered a streamlined Fourth Amendment jurisprudence with a straightforward test to determine whether a search is constitutional.


Mark Knights was sentenced to summary probation for a drug offense by a California trial court. The probation order Knights signed read, in part, that he would "[s]ubmit his ... person, property, place of residence, vehicle, personal effects, [sic] to search at anytime, with or without a search warrant, warrant of arrest or reasonable cause by any probation officer or law enforcement officer." (4) In 1996, Knights and his associate Steven Simoneau were identified as suspects in a vandalism spree against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG & E) facilities in Napa County. The spree began shortly after PG & E filed a theft-of-services complaint against Knights and discontinued his service for failure to pay. Detective Todd Hancock of the Napa County Sheriff's Department had noticed that the acts of vandalism coincided with Knights's PG & E-related court appearances. On May 24, 1998, a sheriff's deputy had stopped Knights and Simoneau near a PG & E gas line. Knights and Simoneau could not explain their presence in the area. The deputy observed pipes, pieces of chain, tools, and gasoline in the pickup truck. He asked permission to search the vehicle, but was refused. A few days later a pipe bomb was detonated not far from Knights's residence. On June 1, 1998, after Knights was placed on probation, a PG & E power transformer and a Pacific Bell telecommunications vault were set on fire using gasoline accelerants. Brass padlocks had been pried off to allow the arsonists access. After the arson a sheriff's deputy drove past Knights's residence and saw Simoneau's truck parked in front. He felt the hood of the truck and found it was warm. On June 3, 1998, Detective Hancock ordered surveillance of Knights's apartment. Early in the morning, Simoneau was observed exiting the apartment carrying three cylindrical items He walked across the street to the bank of the Napa River and returned without the cylinders, wiping a glass jar with a cloth. Detective Hancock heard three splashes from the river at the time Simoneau was at its bank. Simoneau drove away, parked his truck in a driveway, and left. Detective Hancock approached the truck and observed a Molotov cocktail and explosive materials, a gasoline can, and two brass padlocks that fit the description of those removed from the PG & E transformer vault. The truck was seized, impounded, and later searched pursuant to a warrant. Hancock then conducted a search of Knights's apartment. Hancock was aware of Knights's probation order and its conditions. Based on the probation order, he believed he did not need a warrant for the search. …


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