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Parolee's Conviction Reversed for Illegal Probation Search

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a parolee's conviction for possessing a gun because the warrantless probation search was unconstitutional and subsequent incriminating statements were inadmissible under the "fruit of the poisoned tree" doctrine.

Curtis Ray Howard was convicted of bank robbery in 1996 and placed on supervised release on April 14, 2003. A condition of his release was a search clause allowing the "warrantless search of his residence, person, property, and automobile" at any time to ensure he was complying with the conditions of his supervised release, and a requirement that he "not associate with any persons engaged in criminal activity ? or convicted of a felony."

On February 3, 2004, a confidential informant called Howard's probation officer and advised that Howard was staying at his girlfriend's residence and had a gun there. Howard previously had been advised to terminate his relationship with the woman because she was a seven-time convicted felon. Surveillance was begun on the woman's apartment.

A warrant to search Howard's residence and his girlfriend's apartment was obtained from the probation department. Because Howard was not at his residence, no search was conducted. When Howard tried to leave his girlfriend's apartment both were apprehended. Permission to search was denied by the girlfriend, and both denied that Howard lived there. Howard's girlfriend left the complex while police tried Howard's keys, which did not open the apartment door.

The apartment owner, who had no right to consent to the search, opened the apartment for police. A gun was found inside, which Howard admitted was his. He subsequently pled guilty while reserving the right to appeal the validity of the probation search.

The Ninth Circuit held that "before conducting a warrantless search pursuant to a parolee's parole condition, law enforcement officers must have probable cause to believe that the parolee is a resident of the house to be searched." This is a stringent standard. "It is insufficient to show that the parolee may have spent the night there occasionally.
Instead, the facts known to the officers at the time of the search must have been sufficient to support a belief, in 'a man of reasonable caution,' that Howard lived" at the apartment.

The evidence showed that the probation officer knew Howard was rarely at the apartment, going weeks without being seen there, and was always with his girlfriend when he was present. Police surveillance failed to spot Howard at the apartment over a 4-week period. Finally, Howard and his girlfriend denied that he lived there and none of his keys opened the apartment. Visits to Howard's residence revealed he still continued to reside there and not at his girlfriend's apartment.

Under these circumstances, the Ninth Circuit held the probation search was unconstitutional and Howard's incriminating statement was inadmissible as fruit of the poisoned tree. His guilty plea was vacated. See: United States v. Howard, 447 F.3d 1257 (9th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

United States v. Howard