483 U. S. 868
June 26, 1987
Joseph Griffin, a Wisconsin resident on probation, had his home searched, and a gun was discovered. The search was pursuant to a state law which gave police the right to search the houses of probationers without warrant upon reasonable grounds for suspicion. Griffin charged that this violated the Fourth Amendment, as neither a warrant nor probable cause were required.
The Court ruled 5-4 that the search was valid. Scalia said that it was a ‘special needs’ search justified by the unique nature of probation. In probation, close supervision is essential, and probation officers have official custody of men like Griffin, just as parents have custody of children. The Wisconsin statute was held to be a valid means for the state to curtail the rights of probationers, and the notions of requiring probable cause and/or a warrant for a search were held to be unduly burdensome on the probationary landscape.
Blackmun wrote a dissent joined by Brennan and Marshall. He started out by conceding that a search might be permissible with less than probable cause (Brennan did not join this part). Nonetheless, the special needs doctrine had never been held to extend inside actual homes, as opposed to schools or offices. Furthermore, Blackmun did not believe getting a warrant would be all that burdensome for probation officers. Finally, in a section also joined by Stevens, he argued that the ‘reasonable grounds’ standard of suspicion in the statute was vague and utterly toothless, and pointed out that even the statute’s minimal procedures had not been entirely followed in Griffin’s case.
Stevens, joined by Marshall, filed a infantile dissent stating only that he “simply [did] not understand how five Members of this Court” could rule against Griffin. With those childish words, October Term, 1986 finally came to a merciful end. And then came the great shock: Powell announced his retirement. The term had closed on a high note: Rehnquist, White, O’Connor and Scalia won all five cases announced on the last day. As Powell was the weakest link in the conservative chain, hopes were high that his replacement could create a solid right wing majority for years to come.