In United States v. Estrella, the Ninth Circuit held that a law enforcement officer must have probable cause to believe that a person is on active parole before conducting a suspicionless search or seizure pursuant to a parole condition, but that officer need not have ongoing day-by-day awareness of person’s parole status.
In 2015, Christian Alejandro Estrella stipulated to a gang-related sentence enhancement following a conviction. As part of his gang registration requirements, Estrella admitted that he had been a member of the Angelino Heights Sureños,a criminal gang based in Santa Rosa, California, for five years. After he was released from prison, Estrella relocated to Lakeport, California. In July 2018, Estrella went to the Lakeport Police Department (“LPD”) to register as a convicted gang member. The police department informed Officer Tyler Trouette (“Trouette”), LPD’s gang specialist and a member of the Lake County Gang Task Force, that Estrella was on parole and was registered as a member of the Angelino Heights Sureños gang. Trouette familiarized himself with Estrella’s criminal history and his previous gang-related convictions. The next day, Trouette visited Estrella at his home. According to the Government, Trouette and Estrella discussed Estrella’s parole conditions, and confirmed that he was prohibited from associating with a gang or wearing gang attire.
Between July 2018 and August 2019, Trouette had several additional conversations with Estrella’s parole officer about Estrella. Through these conversations, the parole officer informed Trouette of Estrella’s conditions of parole and gang terms. In April 2019, the parole officer informed Trouette that Estrella had violated his parole by committing a battery, but the parole officer did not indicate that Estrella’s parole would soon expire.
In August 2019 – i.e., fourteen months after Trouette learned that Estrellahad been placed on parole, and four months after Trouette was informed that Estrella had violated his parole conditions – Trouette and another officer were on patrol in a marked vehicle when Trouette saw Estrella standing outside his residence next to a white Honda Accord. The officers approached Estrella. At the time of this encounter, Estrella was a registered gang member on California state parole and was subject to a suspicionless search condition that had been upheld by the Supreme Court. Estrella confirmed that he was on parole and volunteered his driver’s license. Dispatch confirmed that Estrella was on probation until October 2019, that he was on California parole until 2020, and that he had registered as a convicted felon and a gang member. The officers searched Estrella’s person and his vehicle, discovering a handgun and ammunition in the car’s center console. Trouette arrested Estrella.
Estrella was indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. The District Court denied his motion to suppress the handgun found in the car. After entering a plea of guilty and preserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress, Estrellaappealed, arguing that the officers did not have the requisite advance knowledge that he was on parole at the time of this encounter.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. The Court explained, however, that it was firmly established that “[a] search of a parolee that complies with the terms of a valid search condition will usually be deemed reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Cervantes, 859 F.3d 1175, 1183 (9th Cir. 2017). Pursuant to Cal. Penal Code section 3067(b)(3), every parolee under the state’s supervision “is subject to search or seizure . . . at any time of the day or night, with or without a search warrant or with or without cause.” The Ninth Circuit observed that in Samson v. California, the United States Supreme Court held that Section 3067(b)(3) satisfies the mandates of the Fourth Amendment, as the state’s interests in public safety and reintegration outweigh the privacy interests of its parolees. 547 U.S. 843, 857 (2006).
As a threshold requirement, the Ninth Circuit had previously held that “an officer must know of a detainee’s parole status before that person can be detained and searched pursuant to a parole condition.” Moreno v. Baca, 431 F.3d 633, 641 (9th Cir. 2005). The Court explained that “advance knowledge of a parolee’s status is critical to the constitutionality of a suspicionless search of a parolee. . . . If the officer learns of this status after the suspicionless search has commenced, the search is in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” However, the Ninth Circuit had not previously specifically addressed how precise that knowledge must be, and the record in this case did not indicate whether Trouette was ever informed of the precise date that Estrella’s parole commenced, or when it was scheduled to conclude.
Estrella argued on appeal that the officers did not have advanced knowledge that he was on parole at the time of this encounter, and thus his detention and search violated the Fourth Amendment. Estrella claimed that an officer must possess “actual knowledge” of the suspect’s parole status before conducting a suspicionless search or seizure pursuant to a parole condition. Applying this framework, he argued that Trouette did not know that Estrella was on active parole, as Trouette did not know precisely when Estrella’s parole had begun or when it was scheduled to conclude.
The Ninth Circuit stated that it “decline[d] to adopt the inflexible standard Estrella propose[d], which would create practical problems for everyday police work. If the standard is ‘actual knowledge,’ with no latitude for uncertainty, officers must possess ‘up-to-the-minute information’ of a parolee’s status before proceeding with a routine compliance check.”
The Ninth Circuit held that a law enforcement officer must have probable cause to believe that a person is on active parole before he may be detained and searched pursuant to a parole condition. (Emphasis added.) Although a law enforcement officer must have “advance knowledge” that the detainee remains on active parole, United States v. Caseres, 533 F.3d 1064, 1076 (9th Cir. 2008), the officer need not “know to an absolute certainty,” with precise day-by-day or minute-by-minute information of the detainee’s parole status. People v. Douglas, 193 Cal. Rptr. 3d 79, 89 (1st Dist. 2015). The Court stated that it was sufficient for the officer to determine, using the well-establishedrules governing probable cause, that the individual to be detained and searched is on active parole, and that an applicable parole condition authorizes the challenged search or seizure.
Applying this standard, the Court of Appeals concluded that Trouette had probable cause to believe that Estrella remained on active parole when he was detained and searched in August 2019. The Court explained that Trouette was familiar with Estrella: He met Estrella personally, reviewed his criminal history, discussed his parole conditions, and maintained contact with his parole officer. Although Trouette did not know the exact start and end dates of Estrella’s parole term, he knew that California parole ordinarily lasts three to four years. The officer also had good reason to believe that Estrella’s term was not over: Estrella was released from prison in July 2018, about one year prior, and had violated a parole condition in April 2019, only four months prior. Moreover, there was no uncertainty that Estrella was placed on California parole. The Court thus found that Trouette had probable cause to believe that Estrella was subject to the statutory search condition imposed by Penal Code section 3067(b)(3), even without “up-to-the-minute” confirmation of his parole status. Cf. Douglas, 193 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 89. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s denial of Estrella’s motion to suppress.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
With this ruling, law enforcement officers have guidance that they must have probable cause to believe that a person is on active parole before the person may be detained and searched pursuant to a parole condition. The more up-to-date information an officer has, the more likely he or she will be able to establish such probable cause. Accordingly, officers should take actions to ensure that they are acting on an active parole condition prior to engaging in the search. While this has been the law for a number of years, the Estrella case clarifies that probable cause to believe a person is on active parole is sufficient to conduct the search, not absolute certainty.
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 United States v. Estrella, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 13994 (9th Cir. June 6, 2023).
 Fitzgerald v. City of Los Angeles, 485 F. Supp. 2d 1137, 1143 (C.D. Cal. 2007).