Griffin v. Wisconsin
Decided on June 26, 1987; 483 US 868


A. Issues Discussed: Search and seizure

B. Legal Question Presented:

Do home searches without a warrant or probable cause of people on probation violate the Fourth Amendment?


A. Background:

"On September 4, 1980, Griffin, who had previously been convicted of a felony, was convicted in Wisconsin state court of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and obstructing an officer. He was placed on probation.

Wisconsin law puts probationers in the legal custody of the State Department of Health and Social Services and renders them 'subject . . . to . . . conditions set by the court and rules and regulations established by the department.' One of the Department's regulations permits any probation officer to search a probationer's home without a warrant as long as his supervisor approves and as long as there are 'reasonable grounds' to believe the presence of contraband - including any item that the probationer cannot possess under the probation conditions....

On April 5, 1983, while Griffin was still on probation, Michael Lew, the supervisor of Griffin's probation officer, received information from a detective on the Beloit Police Department that there were or might be guns in Griffin's apartment. Unable to secure the assistance of Griffin's own probation officer, Lew, accompanied by another probation officer and three plainclothes policemen, went to the apartment. When Griffin answered the door, Lew told him who they were and informed him that they were going to search his home. During the subsequent search - carried out entirely by the probation officers under the authority of Wisconsin's probation regulation - they found a handgun.

Griffin was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, which is itself a felony. He moved to suppress the evidence seized during the search. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that no warrant was necessary and that the search was reasonable. A jury convicted Griffin of the firearms violation, and he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment. The conviction was affirmed by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

On further appeal, the Wisconsin Supreme Court also affirmed."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging reversal by Arthur Eisenberg filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.

Alan G. Habermehl, by appointment of the Court argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance by Solicitor General Fried, Assistant Attorney General Weld, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, Richard G. Taranto, and Kathleen A. Felton filed a brief for the United States.

Barry M. Levenson, Assistant Attorney General of Wisconsin, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Donald J. Hanaway, Attorney General.


"We think the Wisconsin Supreme Court correctly concluded that this warrantless search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.... As his sentence for the commission of a crime, Griffin was committed to the legal custody of the Wisconsin State Department of Health and Social Services, and thereby made subject to that Department's rules and regulations. The search of Griffin's home satisfied the demands of the Fourth Amendment because it was carried out pursuant to a regulation that itself satisfies the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement under well-established principles.

...A State's operation of a probation system, like its operation of a school, government office or prison, or its supervision of a regulated industry, likewise presents 'special needs' beyond normal law enforcement that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable-cause requirements. Probation, like incarceration, is 'a form of criminal sanction imposed by a court upon an offender after verdict, finding, or plea of guilty.'

...These restrictions are meant to assure that the probation serves as a period of genuine rehabilitation and that the community is not harmed by the probationer's being at large....

A warrant requirement would interfere to an appreciable degree with the probation system, setting up a magistrate rather than the probation officer as the judge of how close a supervision the probationer requires. Moreover, the delay inherent in obtaining a warrant would make it more difficult for probation officials to respond quickly to evidence of misconduct and would reduce the deterrent effect that the possibility of expeditious searches would otherwise create. By way of analogy, one might contemplate how parental custodial authority would be impaired by requiring judicial approval for search of a minor child's room.

We think that the probation regime would also be unduly disrupted by a requirement of probable cause.... First, even more than the requirement of a warrant, a probable-cause requirement would reduce the deterrent effect of the supervisory arrangement. The probationer would be assured that so long as his illegal (and perhaps socially dangerous) activities were sufficiently concealed as to give rise to no more than reasonable suspicion, they would go undetected and uncorrected...."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.

Justice Vote: Pro vs. Con

  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin's judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.