By Matt Miller, Pennlive.com, September 23, 2015
Parole agents can frisk people other than parolees for weapons if they have a reasonable suspicion the person being searched poses a safety risk, a state Superior Court panel ruled recently.
The decision clarifies the scope of parole agents’ authority. President Emeritus Judge Kate Ford Elliott noted in the Superior Court opinion that Pennsylvania law doesn’t definitively address the issue.
In fact, Ford Elliott’s court looked to rulings from courts in other states, including Ohio and Louisiana, for guidance as it weighed the appeal of Darrin Orlando Mathis.
Mathis, 23, of Harrisburg, appealed to the Superior Court after Dauphin County Judge Todd A. Hoover convicted him in November on weapons and drug possession charges. Mathis, a convicted felon who was barred from possessing guns, was sentenced to 32 to 64 months in state prison.
On appeal, Mathis challenged a ruling by Hoover denying his pretrial request to suppress the evidence against him, specifically a pistol that was found when a state parole agent frisked him at a Harrisburg home. He claimed the agent had no authority to subject him to a pat-down because he wasn’t a parolee in the agent’s charge.
The pat-down in dispute occurred in December 2013 when two parole agents visited the home to check on another man who was a parolee. Mathis was only visiting the house to get a haircut.
During the visit, the agents smelled marijuana and took the parolee into custody. The agents noted that Mathis was acting as though he was nervous, court filings state.
Agent Michael Welsh testified that he decided to frisk Mathis after Mathis picked up a green jacket “kind of funny” and was “holding this thing like it was a baby… being real gentle with it.” The agent said he grabbed the jacket and felt the butt of a gun. After a brief tug of war, Welsh pulled the jacket away from Mathis, then aimed his Taser at Mathis and handcuffed him.
Mathis later admitted to having the gun – which was loaded – and some marijuana.
Ford Elliott observed in her court’s opinion that “there is little guidance in the way of published law in this commonwealth” regarding the issue of whether parole agents have the authority to pat down non-parolees.
Rulings by courts that dealt with the issue in other states convinced her that parole agents in Pennsylvania must have such authority in order to protect themselves, she wrote. Parole agents often face the same risks as police officers, who have broader power to frisk persons they deem to be potential threats, the judge noted.
In rejecting Mathis’ appeal, the Superior Court didn’t give parole agents permission to pat down whoever they please.
The agents can conduct weapons frisks of non-parolees who are present during arrests or home visits “where the parole agent has a reasonable suspicion that a person searched may be armed and dangerous,” Ford Elliott wrote.
Matt Miller is a reporter for The Patriot-News/PennLive in Harrisburg