U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

4th Cir. Clarifies 4th Amendment Parolees' Rights

Fourth Amendment cases are always interesting in that they deal with some of the most fundamental concerns affecting state and citizen: state intervention into suspected criminal activity. And when multiple states are involved, the laws can only get more interesting.

A recent case out of the Fourth Circuit could possibly set the tone for parolees who have apparently violated the terms of their parole. In the Fourth Circuit's opinion, however, one cannot violate parole terms if they don't exist.

Brief Facts for to Set the Stage

Mr. Stanley Jones was arrested and charged in North Carolina with two counts of inappropriate sexual conduct with a student. While charges were pending, he changed career paths and worked as a salesman. Things went well for him and he was promoted twice and later transferred to a position in Georgia.

Jones returned to North Carolina and pled guilty. He was given a suspended sentence and was given supervised probation for 24 months. The court required a regular payment schedule and also allowed a transfer to Georgia pursuant to the Interstate Compact for Adult Offender Supervision (Compact), a nationwide agreement among the states that governs the transfer of probation supervision between the territories. Jones had to apply to be allowed by the Compact, which he did. Unfortunately, the paperwork at North Carolina was left incomplete, apparently by a good faith mistake. Jones's payment information, total amount due, and scheduling were all missing.

Initially, Jones's probation went well in his new state, but his probation officers back in North Carolina were unable to reach him when he switched cities within Georgia. The Georgia probation officers reviewed and approved Jones's transfer to his new city. Meanwhile, North Carolina probation officers asked their Georgia counterparts to relay to Jones that he was in violation of the terms of his probation. The North Carolina probation officers sent notice to his old Georgia address and the notice was returned. They both sought an order for his arrest. When he claimed malicious prosecution, the district court dismissed.

Reasonable Suspicion: Doesn't Seem to Apply Here

In a nutshell, the circuit sided for parolees.

First, it addressed the proper level of suspicion parole officers must have before an arrest can be made for violating parole. In the circuit's opinion, parolees do no enjoy the same level of Fourth Amendment protections that are normally enjoyed by non-parolee citizens. Because citizens are not already under suspicion for criminal conduct, the usual level of suspicion must at least be probable cause before a search can be begin (unless excepted). So, parolee arrests must only be met with a reasonable suspicion level.

Having said that, the circuit found that the parole officers had not met the standard of reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion, though a lower standard than probable cause, must be assayed after taking into account the totality of the circumstances. Here, the parole officers seeking arrest had not taken into account the Jones's address change -- and had not probed into the facts enough. Further, the circuit relied on previous case law establishing that in the absence of a presented payment schedule, insufficient evidence existed to conclude a parole violation.

Qualified Immunity

But Jones wouldn't enjoy any of the fruits of his pains. The two officers had pled qualified immunity for their actions -- and they got it. Since the issue before it was truly a case of first impression, the right to be free from arrest despite an apparent violation of probation was not a "clearly established" right -- the requisite standard for a qualified immunity escape. And since the standard required by the Fourth Amendment to arrest a probationer was not yet clearly established at the time the appeal was sought, the officers were protected anyway.

All you parolees out there can thank Mr. Jones.

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