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Conducting safe and efficient probation and parole searches.

As parole and probation continues to become more control-oriented, an officer's ability to conduct effective searches of offenders and their property is increasingly important. In many jurisdictions, judges now require offenders to submit to searches as a probation condition, and nearly all parolees are subject to searches according to their conditions of release.

Two issues are central to an effective search. First, and perhaps most important, you need to conduct searches safely. Second, you need to meet all legal requirements, so that any evidence you discover can be used at revocation hearings and in a criminal court. A cautionary note: Because laws may vary in different jurisdictions, it is a good idea to consult your local district attorney's office if you are uncertain about the legality of any part of your search procedure.

Search Planning

Offenders, like most people, do not like to have their privacy invaded. This means that searches raise considerable management problems. However, because most searches are planned in advance, you can anticipate most potential problems. Before every search, you should review the scope of the search and the staff and equipment needed.

Scope. In virtually all searches, you should know what you are looking for. Examples include narcotics, weapons and stolen merchandise. This helps you decide how much assistance you need, where to search and what type of equipment is needed.

While courts generally do not restrict officers on the scope of a search, time constraints usually impose some limits. "Fishing expeditions" - looking randomly without a specific reason for doing so - not only waste time, they also increase the likelihood of drawing a judge's wrath. Consider what most courts allow seized in searches:

1. When a warrant is required, anything specified in the warrant;

2. Anything of evidentiary value - this pertains not only to the crime or violation under investigation but also to anything that would indicate that any crime or violation has been committed;

3. Fruits" of a crime - anything taken or obtained as a result of a crime or a violation;

4. "Instrumentalities" of a crime - anything used to commit the crime or violation, such as burglary tools, weapons and narcotic preparation or packaging devices; and

5. Contraband - anything in which mere possession, such as heroin, sawed-off shotguns and other firearms, constitutes a crime or a violation.

Staffing. You always need at least two people to conduct an effective search - one to do the actual hands-on search and the other to log, tag and record anything found. It is virtually impossible for one person to do the search, stop to do the necessary recording and packaging, and then return to the search without missing an area or searching an area twice.

If the area is large or complex, additional teams of two may be needed. If you anticipate having to control people at the scene, such as the probationer or parolee, family members or friends, additional staff will be necessary. It is impossible to search and manage people at the same time.

It is extremely important to define each person's specific role before you arrive. Having staff wander around aimlessly can create serious safety problems and threaten the search's validity.

Equipment. You need an array of equipment and tools at the search site. Nothing is more frustrating and time-consuming than discovering at the scene that you do not have the proper containers, recording forms or safety devices to conduct the search.

To avoid this problem, some offices or officers have put together search kits, which can be stored inside your car trunk or at the office. A kit should include:

1. Tags, pens, manila envelopes and sealable plastic bags. Anything seized needs to be safely stored in containers.

2. Rubber gloves, which searchers should always wear to avoid skin contact with dangerous substances.

3. A mirror and a flashlight. Searchers should never reach into areas they have not first seen. Long-handled, flexible mirrors like those on a bicycle's handlebars are most desirable.

4. Tongs. Because many drug dealers booby-trap their stashes, searchers should pick up unidentified objects with something other than their hands.

5. Masking tape. Containers such as bags and manila envelopes need to be sealed and labeled.

Other useful items include a tape measure, a camera, a set of screwdrivers and pliers, and coveralls to protect one's clothing.

Conducting the Search

Once you've arrived, your first concern is to ensure that the location is safe and secure. At least one officer should be responsible for managing the people present during the search. This officer should use the least forceful means necessary to prevent people from interfering with the search or threatening the safety of the officers involved. Visitors may be asked to leave if their departure will not jeopardize anyone's safety.

The search must be conducted systematically so that all necessary areas are thoroughly searched. Some methods for accomplishing this include:

1. Designating the room as a clock. Pick one spot as twelve o'clock and then search clockwise around the room. You can create a drawing of the room for the search record and note the location where anything is found, i.e, "gun found in bookshelf at four o'clock position."

2. Drawing a grid. For very large areas, including outdoor areas, it is helpful to draw a grid of the area and assign a team to each section of the grid. Each section then can be methodically searched.

Whichever method you choose, the key is to take steps to ensure that the search is done thoroughly and efficiently. Areas should not have to be searched twice.

It is a good idea to have a check-in agreement with someone at the office at a designated time. Failure to check in at the designated time will alert someone that something has gone wrong and that help is required.

Record Keeping

As evidence is discovered, it must be immediately recorded and properly marked. Do not wait until later to complete these important tasks. Your memory may fail you and the item's value as evidence may be seriously compromised.

The item should be clearly marked or tagged so the officer can later verify that it is the same item seized during the search. It should be marked in a way that ensures the information will not be lost or altered. Options include:

1. Scratching the finder's initials and the date of seizure directly onto the item. In doing so, be careful not to permanently damage the item.

2. Placing a hanging tag with the finder's initials and the date of the seizure on the item.

3. Placing the article into an appropriately sized bag or a manila envelope. The finder should place his or her business card, with the date of the seizure written on it, inside the bag or envelope. You may then seal the container with masking tape and write your initials or full name and the date of the seizure on the tape.

Remember, the chain of evidence is best maintained by minimizing the number of people who handle or have access to the evidence. Ideally, no more than two people should handle any item.

In addition to marking the seized items, you should record information about the search in at least two other places - in your notes and on the inventory sheet.

Your search notes should be a detailed and accurate record of the search that can be used in the event of a court hearing or any subsequent legal matter. It should include:

1. What was seized. Describe the item discovered, i.e., "white powdery substance," "green leafy vegetable material," "yellow metal bracelet." Do not state what you believe it is; this can be determined at a laboratory.

2. Where it was seized. Be specific. For example, write "third drawer from the top of bedroom dresser at the four o'clock position" or "top shelf of closet located in bedroom at two o'clock position."

3. The date and time of day it was found.

4. Why it was seized. This is your rationale for believing it is of evidentiary value or contraband.

5. Who discovered and seized the item.

All items taken must, by law, be listed on an inventory sheet, a copy of which must be given to or left for the property's owner. Do not use the detailed search record for this purpose; it may disclose information to the owner you do not want him or her to know. Here again, describe the article - do not put down what you think it is.

Handling and Storage

Everything seized must be handled carefully. If controlled substances are treated clumsily, they can be crushed or contaminated and also can penetrate an officer's skin. Mishandling firearms creates an obvious safety problem. Fingerprints on weapons or other materials can be obliterated by improper handling. Finally, the chain of evidence can be challenged in court if materials or items are handled improperly.

Since probation and parole offices generally are not equipped to handle evidence and contraband, storing these items while maintaining the chain of evidence can be a problem. Obviously, desk drawers, car trunks and lockers that are accessible to other officers are not satisfactory.

Many probation and parole departments have arrangements with other local law enforcement agencies to store, analyze and even dispose of the material when it is no longer needed. Some do so free of charge and others charge fees. In some states, regional criminal justice laboratories provide this service for small departments.

The probation or parole office should be used as a last resort. If it must be used for storage, care needs to be given to the security and integrity of the storage area and to the legal disposal of the material. It is a crime in most states to improperly dispose of controlled substances or weapons. Accurate and timely records must be kept regarding the disposal of all material seized.

Certainly if you anticipate that anything seized is likely to be used in a new criminal prosecution, special care must be given to the integrity of the chain of the evidence.

Law Enforcement


There are some circumstances in which a probation or parole search should be stopped and law enforcement assistance immediately requested. Those instances include:

1. Any indication that the search site is a drug lab. These labs can be very dangerous and should be handled only by experts. A good indication that you may be near a lab is a strong chemical odor, particularly the smell of ether.

2. Discovery of a large stash of narcotics. Again, these have to be handled carefully for safety and evidentiary reasons.

3. Indications of a major crime, such as homicide or large-scale embezzlement or fraud. Since these will almost certainly result in new criminal prosecutions, it is better to turn the search and follow-up investigation over to an agency with more expertise and time.

4. An unmanageable safety situation, such as a large number of people at the search scene, considerable resistance from the person being searched or unruly bystanders.

As long as the search legitimately began as a probation or parole search, requesting help from another law enforcement agency does not alter that fact. As long as the other agency is operating at your request and as your agent, it will not become a general law enforcement search. Had another law enforcement agency initiated the search, that agency would have had to establish probable cause and obtain a warrant. However, since it began as a parole and probation search, it remains so, even with police assistance.

Both the procedural and legal aspects of probation or parole searches are equally important. Failure to understand and adhere to the legal parameters of the search can result in a search that is unconstitutional and, therefore, invalid. Over time, poorly executed searches increase the possibility that courts will take away this important supervision tool. Unplanned, haphazard searches often prove unproductive, inefficient and unsafe. It is in our best interest to be knowledgeable about the whys and hows of probation and parole searches and to conduct them skillfully.

Albert G. Smith retired in 1990 after more than 30 years with the California Department of Corrections, including 17 as administrator of staff training for the Parole and Community Services Division. He is a frequent contributor to Corrections Today.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Smith, Albert G.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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