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California Supreme Court: Where Electronics Search Condition of Probation Is Not Reasonably Related to Future Criminality, Condition Is Invalid

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of California held that where an electronics search condition of probation is not reasonably related to future criminality the condition is invalid under People v. Lent, 541 P.2d 545 (Cal. 1975).

In 2014, the juvenile defendant (identified as “Ricardo”) was declared a ward of the court and placed on probation stemming from his involvement in two burglaries.

The juvenile court imposed various probation conditions, including drug testing, prohibitions on using illegal drugs and alcohol, and associating with people who use drugs. Ricardo objected because there was no indication drugs were associated with his crimes. The judge dismissed the objection because Ricardo had told a probation officer that “he wasn’t thinking” when he committed his offenses and later stated that he had stopped smoking marijuana because it “did not allow him to think clearly.”

Another probation condition required Ricardo to “[s]ubmit ... electronics including passwords under [his] control to search by Probation Officer or peace officer with or without a search warrant at any time of day or night.”

Ricardo challenged this condition as “not reasonably related to the crime or preventing future crime.” The juvenile court upheld the condition on the premise that “minors typically will brag about their marijuana usage ... on the Internet....”

Since Ricardo had said he wasn’t thinking when he committed the offenses and also said marijuana did not allow him to think clearly, the court concluded Ricardo meant he was using marijuana when he committed the offenses; therefore, the electronic monitoring condition was upheld.

Ricardo appealed. The Court of Appeal rejected Ricardo’s contention that the electronics search condition was unreasonable but struck the condition as being too broad. It remanded to the juvenile court to impose a narrower condition limiting searches to only electronic data of Ricardo’s involvement with drugs. The Supreme Court of California granted Ricardo further review.

The Supreme Court observed that a condition of probation that requires or forbids conduct that is not itself criminal is valid if that conduct is reasonably related to the crime of which the defendant was convicted or to future criminality. Lent.

A condition of probation will not be held invalid unless it: (1) has no relationship to the crime of which the offender was convicted, (2) relates to conduct that is not itself criminal, and (3) requires or forbids conduct not reasonably related to future criminality. Id. The Lent test is conjunctive, meaning all three prongs must be satisfied to invalidate a probation condition. People v. Olguin, 198 P.3d 1 (Cal. 2008). “[A] reasonable condition of probation is not only fit and appropriate to the end in view but it must be a reasonable means to that end. Reasonable means are moderate, not excessive, not extreme, not demanding too much, well balanced.” People v. Fritchey, 2 Cal.App.4th 829 (1992).

The Court observed that a cellphone search is highly intrusive, exposing to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home. Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014). The fact that a search of cellphone records might aid a probation officer in ascertaining whether a defendant is complying with other conditions of probation is insufficient to justify the impairment of the constitutionally protected interest in privacy. People v. Bryant, 10 Cal.App.5th 397 (2018).

The People conceded that Ricardo easily satisfied the first two prongs of Lent: the search of his electronic devices bear no relationship to his burglary offenses, and using those devices is not criminal conduct. As for the third prong, the Court agreed with Ricardo’s skepticism of the juvenile court’s finding that teens routinely brag about drug abuse online, and the Court was skeptical of the juvenile court’s finding that Ricardo was using drugs at the time of his crimes. But, even if those findings were true, requiring Ricardo to submit his electronics for searching is excessive, extreme, and demanded too much and is, therefore, unreasonable. Fritchey. The Court rejected the Attorney General’s argument that any search condition facilitating supervision of probationers is “reasonably related to future criminality.”

The Court observed that under that standard, courts would uphold a condition requiring probationers to wear 24-hour body cameras or permit a probation officer to accompany them at all times. While such conditions would enhance supervision of probationers and ensure compliance with other conditions, they would not be reasonable because the burden on the probationer would be disproportionate to the legitimate interest in effective supervision. Bryant.

The Court concluded that Ricardo’s search condition imposed a burden that is substantially disproportionate to the legitimate interests in promoting rehabilitation and public safety; consequently, the condition is not reasonably related to future criminality and is invalid under Lent.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal striking the electronic search condition and remanded to the Court of Appeal, so it can remand to the juvenile court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion. See: In re Ricardo P., 446 P.3d 746 (Cal. 2019).

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