A Pennsylvania appellate court has ruled that parole agents may frisk non-parolees that are guests of parolees during arrests or home visits if they suspect those people are armed and dangerous. In December 2013, two parole agents went to check on a parolee. They ended up arresting another man, a guest of the parolee, after a pat-down search revealed a gun in the jacket he was holding. The defendant argued that stop and frisks conducted by parole agents on non-parolees are beyond the authority of the agent. State parole agents are employed by the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and the Prisons and Parole Code sets forth the authority of state parole agents. The Code affirms parole officers to be “peace officers” and gives them limited police power and authority to arrest, without warrant, parolees under the supervision of the Parole Board. The Code refers to what parole officers may do with parolees, but not with non-parolees. The Code does not empower parole agents to act as police officers with respect to non-parolees or private citizens.
The Court reasoned that parole agents often face similar safety risks as police officers. Although the statute limits what a parole officer’s authority is, the court recognized a parole officer’s authority to conduct a weapons frisk of a non-parolee when the facts and circumstances would warrant a reasonably prudent police officer in doing the same. Parole officers routinely encounter persons other than parolees when on the job and should not be required to take unnecessary risks in performing their duties.
Parole agents can conduct weapons frisks of non-parolees who are present during arrests or home visits, only when the agent has reasonable suspicion that the person searched may be armed and dangerous. The question then becomes, what is “reasonable suspicion?” The answer is left in the discretion of the Judge and courts. The Superior Court left open the question whether the agents had sufficient ancillary authority under the facts to search appellant for evidence of contraband.
I agree with the Superior Court that parole agents need to be able to protect themselves when conducting a home check on a parolee. However, searching non-parolee’s without reasonable suspicion they are dangerous is a violation of the constitution’s fourth amendment rights. The Pennsylvania Code sets forth a specific job description pertaining to only authority over parolees. In this case, it does not appear that the agent had “reasonable suspicion”. In many courts the interpretation of reasonable suspicion comes down to the discretion of the Court and the Judge. This case sets a bad precedent as it further gives “peace officers” even more authority than statue allows. The facts of this case do not support the finding that the parole officer had reasonable suspicion. The defendant was picking up his personal belongings to vacate the premises when the parole officer grabbed his coat and thought he felt a gun. The parole agent should never have grabbed the coat because his only other suspicions were that there was an ambiguous bulge in the defendant’s jacket, and that the defendant was acting nervous. The parole agent acted on a hunch and grabbed the defendant’s jacket, after the defendant refused a request for a pat down.
Illinois has similar statutes declaring parole agents as “peace officers” although there doesn’t appear to be any Illinois case law questioning a parole agent’s authority to search a non-parolee, this Pennsylvania case brings forth a controversial precedent allowing parole agents or other “peace officers” more authority than statute allows.