Here’s video of parole officers caught on video stealing cash from inside a house they are otherwise lawfully searching as law enforcement officers. Is that a civil rights violation? Can they be sued? Could they get qualified immunity? Just in general, if police officers steal something from you, does that violate your federal constitutional rights?
On November 16, 2022 in Greece, New York, Shannon Carpenter and her boyfriend John Grandberry were getting ready for the day when there was a knock at the door shortly after 8 a.m. At the door were six state parole officers who announced they were there to search the house. Grandberry was on parole after serving prison time for a “criminal possession of a weapon” conviction. Four officers entered the house. Carpenter switched on a phone-activated web camera, aimed at the bed and closet. The camera recorded video of parole officers searching the house, eventually finding $6,000 in cash that was kept in a pair of pink Timberland boots. Here’s what happened.
Following the discovery of the items, around 9:30 a.m., one of the parole officers, identified by Carpenter as Doris Hernandez, appears to type a message on her phone and hand the phone to her colleague, an unidentified male officer. He glances at it, hands it back to her, and they whisper inaudibly. The male officer then peeps out the door before turning back to Hernandez. “We can share the money…,” he said. “You’re right,” Hernandez replied, pointing a finger gun at the other officer. “As long as there’s enough money to go around,” he said.
The incident has since become the basis for pending litigation brought by Carpenter and, according to the Greece Police Department, an investigation by New York State Police. Hernandez has since been suspended with pay, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees the Parole Division. Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the agency, did not give a reason for Hernandez’s leave and did not respond to a question sent via email of whether the unidentified male officer had been suspended. Meanwhile, the search put Grandberry back behind bars. He is being held on violating parole for possessing a weapon, a scale, and drugs, according to the Monroe County Jail Census.
While this search and seizure must meet the reasonableness requirements of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has applied a balancing test to weigh the potential intrusion on a parolee’s privacy against the governmental interest at stake. See Samson v. California, 547 U.S. 843, 848, 126 S.Ct. 2193, 165 L.Ed.2d 250 (2006); U.S. v. Knights, 534 U.S. 112, 118, 122 S.Ct. 587, 151 L.Ed.2d 497 (2001).
The Court has explained that parolees “do not enjoy ‘the absolute liberty to which every citizen is entitled, but only … conditional liberty properly dependent on observance of special [probation] restrictions.’ ” Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, 874, 107 S.Ct. 3164, 97 L.Ed.2d 709 (1987) (citing Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 480, 92 S.Ct. 2593, 33 L.Ed.2d 484 (1972)).
Therefore, a parolee’s diminished expectation of privacy is justified by the state’s substantial interest in the supervision of its parolees and the prevention of recidivism. Samson, 547 U.S. at 850, 855, 126 S.Ct. 2193.
In 2019, in the case of Jessop v. Fresno, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit Court decided that two police officers in Fresno, California, who allegedly stole more than $225,000 in assets while executing a search warrant, could not be sued over the incident. Though “the City Officers ought to have recognized that the alleged theft was morally wrong,” the unanimous 9th Circuit panel said, the officers “did not have clear notice that it violated the Fourth Amendment.”
We recognize that the allegation of any theft by police officers—most certainly the theft of over $225,000—is deeply disturbing. Whether that conduct violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, however, would not “be ‘clear to a reasonable officer.’”
The SCOTUS later declined to hear the case. As of now no Second Circuit opinions have cited Jessop.
The 4th Circuit in the 2004 case of Mom’s Inc. v. Willman was the only prior federal circuit to address the issue of whether it was a 4th Amendment violation for law enforcement to steal items otherwise lawfully confiscated during a search.
Here’s information regarding the lawsuit we just filed against West Virginia parole officers: