Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Police May Search a Parolee’s Home Without a Warrant

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a law enforcement officer does not need a warrant to search the home of someone on parole, as long as there is reasonable suspicion that the parolee has violated (or is about to violate) a condition of his parole.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Moore

The defendant was convicted in New Hampshire of assault with a firearm and sentenced to serve between two and a half and 10 years in prison.  He was paroled in 2011 and when he moved to Massachusetts in 2012, his supervision was transferred to the Massachusetts parole board.  Less than a year after moving to Massachusetts, the defendant’s parole officer received an anonymous tip that the defendant was dealing drugs in New Bedford.  The parole officer followed the defendant’s movements that were recorded by a GPS tracker he was required to wear as a condition of his release.  The parole officer found that the defendant traveled to Boston where he stopped twice for only a couple of minutes before returning to New Bedford.  During the ensuing days, the defendant made several short stops around New Bedford that were consistent with street-level drug transactions.  The parole officer issued a warrant for the defendant’s detention.

Police officers located the defendant, who was a passenger in a car being driven by his girlfriend.  The officers stopped the car and saw a marijuana joint in the defendant’s lap.  The defendant and his girlfriend were separated and gave different stories regarding their trip to Boston.  The girlfriend produced two bags of cocaine she had been carrying, but no other contraband was discovered in her car.  The police officers called the defendant’s parole officer and informed him of the defendant’s arrest.  The parole officer and three police officers went to the defendant’s apartment and searched it without a warrant.  Inside the defendant’s bedroom were 17 bags of crack cocaine, a digital scale (commonly used by drug dealers to weigh their product) and a gun lock.  A grand jury indicted the defendant for possessing cocaine with the intent to distribute.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing his parole officer’s warrantless search of his apartment violated the federal and state constitutions.  A superior court judge agreed, ruling the parole officer needed to have obtained a warrant prior to the search of the apartment.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

The Court began its analysis by pointing out that individuals who are released either on probation or on parole have a diminished expectation of privacy.  The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a probationer’s home can be searched if the probation officer has only reasonable suspicion (a lower standard than probable cause) that the terms of his probation have been violated.  Individuals on parole have even fewer privacy rights, as the Supreme Court has held their homes can be searched for no reason at all.  The Massachusetts Declaration of Rights provides greater protection to individuals on probation and parole.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has said a probationer’s home can be searched only if there is reasonable suspicion to believe a violation has occurred and the probation officer has obtained a search warrant (except in those circumstances where a search warrant has traditionally not been required).  But until today, the SJC has not decided what, if anything, is necessary to allow a parole officer to search a parolee’s home.

The SJC ruled that a parole officer may not search a parolee’s home without reasonable suspicion that a violation has occurred, but unlike searches of probationers’ homes, a parole officer does not need a search warrant.  The Court reasoned that parolees have fewer rights than probationers because someone on parole is a ward of the Commonwealth.  Someone on probation, on the other hand, is not in the custody of a state department.  Accordingly, parole is more similar to imprisonment than probation.  The Court found that in this case, the parole officer had reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant was involved in drug dealing and the search of his apartment was therefore permitted under the federal and state constitutions.

This case illustrates the significant dangers faced by defendants who are under the supervision of either the probation department or the parole board.  Probationers or parolees who chose to continue to violate the law expose themselves to tremendous criminal liability.