Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules Search by Parole Officer Violated Constitution

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today concluded a parole officer’s search of a defendant’s bedroom was unconstitutional, resulting in the suppression of drugs and drug paraphernalia.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Judge

The defendant had been serving a jail sentence and was released from a house of correction in May of 2015.  He was immediately assigned to a parole officer who was responsible for supervising him.  The rules regulating parole allow for parole officers to search the homes of parolees if they have reason to believe a search will uncover contraband or illegal items.  About a month after he was released from jail, two parole officers showed up at the defendant residence to conduct a routine home visit.  They knocked on the front door and waited between 30 and 60 seconds for the defendant to say, “hold on.”  Another minute passed before the defendant’s girlfriend opened the door.  She seemed confused and uneasy but allowed the officers to enter.  Within a few seconds, the defendant came out of the bathroom and one of the officers accompanied him back to the bathroom to provide a urine sample for drug testing.  The second officer walked into the defendant’s bedroom and saw: small plastic bags containing what appeared to be heroin; a white substance that appeared to be crack cocaine; a digital scale; and razor blades.  The evidence suggested the defendant was operating a street-level drug distribution scheme.  He was placed under arrest and ultimately charged with drug crimes in superior court.  He moved to suppress the evidence recovered from his bedroom and a superior court judge allowed the motion.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed the suppression order.

While parolees give up some of their constitutional rights, their privacy rights are not altogether forfeited.  Parole officers may not search their homes without a warrant unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe evidence of a crime will be discovered.  Reasonable suspicion is a considerably lower standard of proof than probable cause.  In this case, the Commonwealth asserted the parole officers had reasonable suspicion based on the defendant’s delay in answering the door, the defendant’s girlfriend’s demeanor, and the defendant’s history of committing crimes.  The Appeals Court said even if the parole officers had reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant had committed a crime, the search of his bedroom was unreasonable because the bedroom was not implicated in the defendant’s suspicious behavior.  By emerging from the bathroom when the parole officers entered, the defendant may have provided reasonable suspicion that he tried to hide evidence while in the bathroom.  There was nothing the defendant did to attract attention to his bedroom.  Therefore, it was improper for the parole officer to enter the bedroom and the evidence found therein will be suppressed at the defendant’s trial (which will likely result in the dismissal of the case).

The Appeals Court went on to say the Commonwealth might have been able to establish the search was proper as an “administrative” search, which would not be governed by Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution (or the comparable section of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights).  However, the Commonwealth would have needed to introduce evidence of a parole board policy that explains the rules parole officers must follow in administering administrative searches.  Because no policy was admitted into evidence, the parole officer’s conduct could not be justified as an administrative search.