Monday, February 20, 2012

Parolees have fewer rights than the rest of us

The Court of Appeals holds that parole officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment in searching a parolee's storage closet in his house without a warrant.

The case is U.S. v. Barner, decided on January 13. What you have to know about this case is that the Supreme Court has granted parole officers additional leeway to search inmates who have been released on parole. Of course, the Fourth Amendment says nothing about parole or the "special needs" exception to the constitutional requirement that the government cannot search without a warrant. But case law puts the gloss on vague constitutional commands, and “[a] State’s operation of a probation system ... presents ‘special needs’ beyond normal law enforcement that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable-cause requirements. As a result, probationers may be subject to a degree of impingement upon privacy that would not be constitutional if applied to the public at large.”

Under this rule, when the parole officers got a tip that Barner had fired a weapon at someone, they came to his place with a parole violation arrest warrant. As they were looking around the house for bad stuff, they came upon a storage area adjacent to his apartment. The storage room was across the hallway, about 10 feet away from the entrance to the apartment. Inside the storage area, they found weapons and ammo and also drug dealing paraphernalia. The district court granted Barner's suppression motion, but the Court of Appeals (Sack, Raggi and Eaton [D.J.]) upholds the search.

The legal standard is that searches like this are legal if they are "rationally and reasonably related to the performance of the parole officer's duty." Here's the reasoning:

Parole Officer Spearman had received information that Barner (1) possessed a gun, and (2) had fired it at the complainant. These allegations, if true, would have constituted criminal parole violations separate from and far more serious than the curfew breach. Once Spearman had this information, it was clearly reasonable for her to investigate the accusations further. Thus, the ensuing search satisfied the reasonable relationship requirement of Huntley because it was performed in direct response to information that Spearman obtained and that she had a duty to investigate further, both to determine if a crime had been committed, and to prevent the commission of further crimes.

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