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Ninth Circuit: Warrantless Parole Search Unconstitutional Where "Residence" Was Only an "Emergency Address" Listed Years Earlier

Ninth Circuit: Warrantless Parole Search Unconstitutional Where "Residence" Was Only an "Emergency Address" Listed Years Earlier

By John E. Dannenberg

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a warrantless police search for a parolee, who had not been seen at the address but who had listed it years earlier as a "emergency address," violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the residents of the address. Because police conduct fell far short of the mark establishing probable cause to search, a lawsuit for unlawful search and seizure was permitted to proceed.

Randy Whitmore was a parolee with a checkered arrest and prison record, including numerous parole and probation violations. Placer County, California Sheriff deputies and parole authorities were looking for Whitmore, but did what turned out to be such a haphazard job of researching the record that their subsequent storming of a residence where Whitmore once stayed five years earlier violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the shocked new owners of the home.

At the core of the court's inquiry was the four-part test for a lawful search developed in U.S. v. Howard, 447 F.3d 1257, 1262 (9th Cir. 2006): (1) whether the parolee appeared to be living only at that address, (2) whether direct observation demonstrated that the parolee was using the residence as an unreported home base, (3) whether the parolee had a key to the residence and (4) whether the parolee or his co-resident identified the residence as that of the wanted parolee.

In the instant case, none of these four tests was met. The sole link of the parolee to the residence was a line on a years-old form listing it as an "emergency address." The searching officers did not run checks on the license plates of cars parked in front of the residence. Nor did they check the name of the current owner, who, it turns out, had bought the property months before. Additionally, the officer forcing open the door had on a Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans. The owner thus suspected he was not a peace officer - and duly punched him in the face to protect himself from the perceived home invasion.

The court concluded that two of the four officers had violated Cuevas's Fourth Amendment rights, and that because such a search without probable cause was "clearly established" by U.S. Supreme Court case law, those officers could not claim qualified immunity from suit. Accordingly, the court reversed the unfavorable ruling in the district court below and remanded for further civil proceedings.

See: Cuevas v. De Roco, 531 F.3d 726 (9th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Cuevas v. De Roco