By: Caroline Daniel

In United States v. Hill, a published opinion released today, the Fourth Circuit considered how Fourth Amendment protections apply to citizens who are on supervised release.

Question About Conditions of Defendant’s Supervised Release

Defendant Eric Barker was serving a term of supervised release in February 2013.  As a condition of the release, Barker was required to notify his probation officer if he moved.  He was also required to allow his probation officer to visit any time, whether scheduled or unscheduled.  During the probation officer’s visit, the officer could “confiscate contraband in plain view.”

Based on a suspicion that Barker had moved without giving proper notification, officers obtained a warrant for his arrest and served it at his new residence.  Barker was present at the residence with two other persons (also on supervised release, and also defendants in this case).  The officers took all defendants into custody and performed an initial sweep of the home.  Upon seeing needles, cotton balls, and spoons in the bathroom of the home, the officers then used a drug-detection dog to search the apartment.  The dog led the officers to heroin, prescription pills, LSD, synthetic marijuana, and other paraphernalia.  After the dog and his handler walked through the home, the officers obtained a search warrant and seized the illegal items.

Fourth Circuit Considers Whether the Second Search Was Permissible

The defendants were charged with various drug offenses based on the contraband found in the residence.  Based on the Fourth Amendment, they filed motions to suppress any evidence found during the search.  The defendants claimed that the second search was illegal, as the officers failed to obtain a warrant until after the search was complete.  The district judge denied the motions, reasoning that by allowing his probation officer to visit him at any time, Barker had consented to any searches based on the visiting officer’s reasonable suspicions.

The Fourth Circuit considered whether the district court erred, and whether the scope of the Fourth Amendment as applied to persons on supervised release invalidated the second search as illegal.

Defendant Consented to Visits From Parole Officer, But Not Searches

Reviewing the motions de novo, the Fourth Circuit relied on a thirty-year-old decision, United States v. Bradley, to conclude that the search in question was illegal.  In Bradley, the Fourth Circuit held that when a parolee consented to unannounced visits by his parole officer, he was not completely giving up the rights afforded to him in the Fourth Amendment.  In both Bradley and the current case, the defendants had consented to visits from their parole officers, but not to any other searches.

Though the Fourth Circuit had considered similar issues in three more recent cases, the Court determined that none of these overruled the holding of Bradley.  Accordingly, the Court, reaffirmed Bradley’s holding, concluding that “a parole officer must secure a warrant prior to conducting a search of a parolee’s place of residence even where, as a condition of parole, the parolee has consented to periodic and unannounced visits by the parole officer.”

Search Illegal, But Question About Whether Evidence Admissible Still Lingers

The Fourth Circuit found both factual and legal errors in the district court’s analysis of whether the contraband seized could be admitted despite the illegality of the search.  The Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.