- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A judge went too far in requiring a sex offender to surrender his constitutional protection against unreasonable searches after leaving prison, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices found that the court-imposed lifetime suspension of Ronald Stuart Murry Jr.’s rights under the Fourth Amendment was unreasonable. The court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Murry, who is serving 16 years and seven months in prison after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl.

As a condition of probation, a Hanover County Circuit Court judge required Murry to submit to police searches without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing. The judge thought the condition was necessary to protect the public because Murry had groomed his victim from the age of 5, had concealed his “classic predatory behavior” and had failed to accept responsibility for his behavior.

Murry argued on appeal that the condition was inappropriate because the convictions did not involve illegal substances or weapons. The justices agreed that the order was unreasonable.

“Although the Commonwealth has a legitimate interest in ensuring that Murry completes a meaningful period of rehabilitation and that society not be harmed by Murry’s being at large as a sex offender, we conclude that those interests do not justify the total surrender of Murry’s Fourth Amendment rights,” Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser wrote in the majority opinion.

Kinser wrote that the probation condition “could sanction intimidating and harassing searches” that neither protect public safety nor advance Murry’s rehabilitation.

Murry’s attorney, Steven D. Benjamin, said he has no doubt the trial judge was genuinely concerned that Murry would pose a danger after his release.

“Judges impose conditions like this in order to better ensure public safety,” he said. “This decision is valuable because it explains the limits on how far a judge can go.”

The Virginia Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the ruling because the case is going back to the trial court for resentencing, spokesman Michael Kelly said.

Justice William Mims wrote in a concurring opinion that while the probation condition was too broad, there is nothing to prevent the trial court from refusing to suspend a portion of the sentence. The judge in Murry’s case suspended 140 years of his sentence of 156 years and seven months.

Benjamin said he is not worried that the judge will alter the length of the suspension to keep Murry in prison longer.

“Virginia judges try very hard to impose appropriate sentences,” he said. “There is no danger of any circuit court judge imposing a higher sentence where a condition of probation has been held to be unconstitutionally broad.”

Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan was the lone dissenter.

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