Most people in Florida enjoy the Constitutional protections that prevent the police from searching a person’s home, vehicle or other belongings without probable cause, a search warrant and/or consent. In other words, police cannot just go and enter a person’s home or search something that belongs to a person without respecting certain Constitutional safeguards, which generally require a search warrant or an agreement from the owner of what is being searched.
However, people on probation in Florida do not necessarily get the full protection of these Constitutional provisions. When a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a criminal charge or is found guilty after a trial, the judge will sentence the defendant. That sentence often includes probation, either by itself or after a term of incarceration. When a defendant goes on probation, there are certain conditions that must be followed. There may be specific conditions in certain cases, such as paying a certain amount for restitution in a fraud case, and general conditions that apply to most or all cases. One of the general conditions of probation that is often ordered in Florida is one that allows a probation officer to enter the probationer’s home to search it for drugs, weapons or other indicia of criminal activity. While a probation officer or law enforcement officer would not normally be allowed to enter a person’s home and look around without a search warrant or permission in advance, a person on probation does not have that same protection if a random search was included as a condition of probation. If the probation officer randomly searches a probationer’s home and finds anything illegal, that probationer could face new charges and a violation of probation charge without being able to successfully challenge the search and get the evidence thrown out.
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, a defendant was sentenced to probation after being convicted of a violent crime. A general condition of probation allowed the probation officer to enter his home any time to search it. These general conditions of probation are often not disclosed to the defendant in court during the sentencing hearing. A defendant may have to carefully read his/her sentencing paperwork to see that the condition exists. Many do not bother to do that.
In this case, the probation officer and a police officer showed up at the probationer’s house very early in the morning without notice and came in for a search. They found a gun and drugs inside. As a result, the subject’s probation was violated, and he faced new charges for the drugs and gun since he was a convicted felon. The defendant’s criminal defense lawyer tried to challenge the random, unannounced search, but the courts allowed it since he was on probation, and it was a condition of his probation.
This does not mean that the police and/or a probation officer has free reign to search a probationer’s home as often as, whenever and however they want. Any search must be reasonable in its scope and method. However, it is fairly clear that periodic, random searches without notice will be allowed in these situations where a person is on probation and such searches as allowed as a condition of that probation.