January 30th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Bennett (No. 98, 038). In a unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Davis, the Court held that requiring probationers consent to warrantless, suspicionless searches as a condition of their probation violates their rights under the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 15 of the Kansas Bill of Rights. Note: Former Chief Justice McFarland was a member of the Court at the time this case was argued, but did not take part in the decision. Her place was taken by Judge Christel Marquardt of the Court of Appeals.
The facts of the case are straightforward. Nicholas Bennett was convicted of possession of methamphetamine and placed on probation. As a condition of probation the State asked for and the District Court imposed a requirement that Bennett consent to any searches by a corrections or law enforcement officer. At sentencing Bennett objected to this condition as a violation of his right to be free from unreasonable searches. The District Court rejected his argument, noting that this condition is a common and standard one used in Kansas. Bennett appealed, and won his case in the Court of Appeals which held that the probation condition was unconstitutional. The State appealed that ruling.
During the process of the case Bennett’s probation expired. He moved to have the case dismissed as moot, but the Kansas Supreme Court rejected that, noting that the case concerned an issue of public importance that was likely to be repeated, and noting that it was also the kind of issue where due to the time involved in appeals mootness of an individual case would often be an issue.
The Court approached the question with an analysis of three United States Supreme Court cases. Two of which held that probationers can be searched on a ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard, one of which (Samson v. California (2006)) allowed random searches of parolees. The State argued that Samson by extension also allowed warrentless searches of probationers. The Court noted (though it was not bound by this) a 10th Circuit of Appeals analysis of the applicability of Samson to Kansas law which declined to apply Samson here because the statutory framework for the searches was not the same as in the California case. Having done this, the Court ruled that probationers are on a continuum of liberties between a free citizen at one end and a prisoner at the other. As such they have more freedoms than parolees. The Court refused to go further than U.S. Supreme Court cases which upheld searches on a ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard, and instead ruled that Bennett’s probation condition was a violation of his constitutional rights.
Normally, when a state court makes a ruling based on the Federal constitution its decision is appealable to the United States Supreme Court. In a case like this one where a major part of the State’s approach to probation has been banned, one might expect such a move. However the Court stated that its ruling also applied under the Kansas Bill of Rights, though there is no separate analysis of that in the opinion. It is therefore not clear whether this ruling is appealable (or rather whether a successful appeal to the US Supreme Court would have any effect). We would welcome comments on this post by those who have a clear answer to that question.
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