California Supreme Court Strikes Down Juvenile Electronic Search Condition

By a 4-3 decision released August 15, 2019, the California Supreme Court struck down the electronic search condition in a closely watched juvenile case. The case, In re Ricardo P., involved a young person who was placed on probation in Alameda County after admitting two counts of felony burglary. As a condition of his probation, the juvenile court required him to submit to warrantless searches of his electronic devices, including any electronic accounts that could be accessed through these devices. Even though there was no indication Ricardo used an electronic device in connection with the burglaries, the court imposed the condition in order to monitor his compliance with separate conditions prohibiting him from using or possessing illegal drugs.

Ricardo challenged the probation condition as invalid under People v. Lent (1975) 15 Cal.3d 481.  The California Supreme Court had held in Lent that “a condition of probation which requires or forbids conduct which 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.” (Id. at p. 486.) Although the Court of Appeal in Ricardo’s case agreed that the condition was unconstitutionally overbroad and should be narrowed, it held that the condition was permissible under Lent because it “is reasonably related to enhancing the effective supervision of a probationer” and thus serves to prevent future criminality. While nothing in the record suggested that Ricardo had ever used an electronic device or social media in connection with criminal conduct, the Court of Appeal relied on indications that Ricardo had previously used marijuana and the general concept that juveniles often brag about their marijuana and drug use by posting on the internet.

Justice Liu, writing for the majority in the California Supreme Court, noted that the record before it contained no indication that Ricardo had used or will use electronic devices in connection with drugs or illegal activity, and thus was insufficient to justify the substantial burdens imposed by the electronics search condition.  Justice Liu noted that under the Court of Appeal reasoning, it would be permissible to require probationers wear 24-hour body cameras or permit a probation officer to accompany them at all times – a burden that would enhance supervision but that would not be reasonable because the burden on the probationer would be disproportionate to the legitimate interest in effective supervision. The opinion concluded that the probation condition is not reasonably related to future criminality and is therefore invalid under Lent. The dissenting opinion, authored by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, agreed that the electronics search condition was flawed, but urged that the majority opinion swept too broadly in its application of Lent, particularly given the unique role of juvenile courts in supervising and bringing about the rehabilitation of young people.

PJDC organized “swarm litigation” (coordinated litigation at trial and appellate court levels throughout California) around this issue, and filed an amicus brief in support of Ricardo when it was granted review.  The brief was authored by Kate Weisburd, then at East Bay Community Law Center (now an Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School), and Richard Braucher of the First District Appellate Project .

The opinion is available on the California Supreme Court website.