THE ORIGINAL CASE
Charlotte Yvonne Turner was convicted in Kentucky in 2002 of felony possession of a controlled substance and wanton endangerment. She received a seven-year sentence but was paroled and moved to Tennessee, where her parole supervision was transferred. In April 2007, an officer in Union City stopped her for a seat belt violation and, knowing her history, searched her vehicle after verifying she had signed an agreement that allowed her to be searched without a warrant. The officer then searched her house without a warrant because he did not have enough information to obtain one. He found a loaded .38-caliber handgun. A trial court ruled that because no consent was given to search the home the action was "harassing" and "capricious."
Source: Tennessee Supreme Court
Though a state Supreme Court ruling has made it easier for police to search property of those on probation or parole, local law enforcement officials say they'll continue to get warrants and have reasonable cause before they search.
This month, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that "parolees who are subject to a warrantless search condition may be searched without reasonable or individualized suspicion," according to the opinion.
That gives law enforcement officials more leeway to conduct searches on people who have been convicted of crimes, something that could be beneficial in extreme circumstances, said Chattanooga Police Department Assistant Chief Mike Williams, who oversees the uniformed patrol division.
"We're always going to err on the side of caution to make sure we're doing things legally right, and if there's any question about it we would still want to get a warrant," he said. "But in exigent circumstances that might not be possible."
He gave as a hypothetical example a person whom officers believe has a weapon and would use it to harm someone else if police did not immediately search a residence to find it.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said he agrees with the court's ruling that a parolee has less privacy in regard to searches of homes and vehicles than a person who has not committed a crime.
"I'll instruct my officers that it's just another tool they can use if they suspect a parolee is in violation of the law," he said.
Marion County Sheriff Bo Burnett said he had not read about the ruling and would like to study the case and its appeals before discussing it in detail.
"I'm not a big fan of searches without probable cause," he said. "I'd like to know more about it."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that warrantless searches may be constitutional "if the person being searched has been convicted of a criminal offense and is serving a sentence," which can be anything from solitary confinement in a prison to a few hours of community service, according to a 1987 decision.
The dissenting opinion in the state Supreme Court held that the "Tennessee Constitution provides a greater degree of protection against suspicionless searches than the federal Constitution."
Local defense attorney Robin Flores said the government whittled away Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"When you're locked up behind bars, you have almost no reasonable expectation of privacy whatsoever," he said. "As far as going into (people on) probation or someone with a prior record, that's really pushing the envelope."