On June 4, 2019, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Day v. State[i] which serves as an excellent review of the law regarding administrative or special needs searches. The facts of Day, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
[T]he evidences presented at the suppression hearing shows that Day was on felony probation at the time of the search and had reported to a Georgia Department of Community Supervision (GDCS) facility for intake and a probation appointment. Upon entering the facility, Day was instructed to walk through a metal detector and to place her personal belongings onto a table before undergoing a pat-down search. The probation officer testified that probationers are required to go through this process before meeting with probation personnel for safety reasons. Notices posted on the walls inform those entering the facility that anything on the person is subject to search. During the probation officer’s initial search of Day’s personal items, the officer found “a leafy substance” inside her purse. At this point Day stated, “you don’t want to go in there,” referring to her wallet. A subsequent search of Day’s wallet revealed a “clear baggy” containing a green leafy substance later confirmed to be marijuana.[ii]
Day was subsequently charged with possession of marijuana. She filed a motion to suppress the drugs and argued that the warrantless search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied her motion. The appealed the denial of her motion to suppress to the court of appeals.
The court first examined the legal principles relevant to Day’s case. The court stated
The Fourth Amendment [to the United States Constitution] proscribes all unreasonable searches and seizures, and searches conducted without prior judicial approval are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” (Citation omitted.) Teal v. State, 282 Ga. 319, 322-323 (2) (647 SE2d 15) (2007). “[C]ases . . . sustain[ing] limited searches of persons seeking to enter sensitive facilities recognize an exception to the general requirement of the [F]ourth [A]mendment that searches are proper only if conducted pursuant to a lawful warrant.[Cits.]” McMorris v. Alioto, 567 F2d 897, 899 (9th Cir. 1978). Such “limited searches at sensitive facilities” fall under the category of “administrative searches,” or the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant and probable cause requirements. See id. See also Skinner v. R. Labor Execs. Assn., 489 U. S. 602, 620 (III) (A) (109 SCt 1402, 103 LE2d 639)(1989)…[iii]
Additionally, the court of appeals noted that when evaluating the legality a special needs search, the courts will balance the governmental interests and the individual privacy interests to determine the if the search is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
When balancing the needs of the government, the court of appeals stated that the government has a “compelling interest in protecting the public and its employees inside government buildings.”[iv] In fact, the court noted
The Supreme Court of the Unites States has “reiterate[d] . . . that where the risk to public safety is substantial and real, blanket suspicion less searches calibrated to the risk may rank as ‘reasonable’— for example, searches now routine at airports and at entrances to courts and other official buildings.” (Citation omitted.) Chandler v. Miller, 520 U. S. 305, 323 (III) (117 SCt 1295, 137 LE2d 513) (1997).
The probation officer, at Day’s suppression hearing, testified that every person who arrives to the facility for a probation or parole appointment is required to empty their pockets, place personal belongings on a table, walk through a metal detector and submit to a frisk. The officer testified that the purpose of the search is to keep contraband, such as weapons out of the facility and protecting everyone from the “real danger of violence.” The court of appeals then stated
We conclude that this is a legitimate governmental interest justifying the use of the limited search procedure in this case, especially given the nature of this facility.[v]
The court also discussed Day’s individual privacy interests as a person entering the probation facility. First, the court noted that signs were posted that warned that anyone entering the facility was subject to search. The court stated
Courts have found that by presenting oneself at a sensitive facility’s security checkpoint, one implicitly consents to the screening and search of one’s belongings. See United States v. Herzbrun, 723 F2d 773, 776 (II) (A) (11th Cir. 1984)… This is especially true where multiple signs clearly warn the person of this trade-off. See Prevo, 435 F3d at 1348. Thus, the amount of privacy Day could reasonably expect upon entering the GDCS facility is diminished by the presence of signs warning those reporting for a parole or probation appointment that they and their personal belongings are subject to search. See id.[vi]
Thus, the fact that Day was warned by signs regarding the search and voluntarily entered the building, weigh in favor of the government.
The court of appeals also considered the fact that Day was not an ordinary citizen, but rather was a convicted of a crime, on probation and reporting for a probation appointment. The court stated
While the “right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures extends to all persons, including probationers[,] [a] defendant’s status as a probationer . . . is a factor to be considered in determining whether a search and seizure by a probation officer is unreasonable.” Hunter v. State, 139 Ga. App. 676, 678 (2) (229 SE2d 505) (1976).
While there was no evidence presented to show that Day had agreed to a waiver of her Fourth Amendment rights as a condition of probation, the fact that she was on probation was a factor, according to the court, that supported the conclusion that Day had a diminished expectation of privacy in the contents of her purse when she entered the probation facility for an appointment.
The court of appeals therefore held that the search of Day’s purse and wallet was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As such, they affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] A19A0079 (Ga. App. Decided June 4, 2019)
[iii] Id. (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. (emphasis added)