A "Stalking Horse"?

Comm. v. Gould, 2018 PA Super 123 (May 9, 2018)

A “Stalking Horse”?

Appeal out of Lancaster County. This appeal involved issues of a parolee’s privacy interests under the Fourth Amendment and what is known as the “Stalking Horse Doctrine”—i.e. the idea of a probation/parole officer essentially acting in a capacity of a police officer.  The essential facts giving rise to this appeal were these.

The appellant, Carl Gould, had been on parole.  While on parole, he was spotted as part of a State Police trooper’s surveillance of a Lancaster-area hotel where suspected drug activity was taking place.  Believing Gould to be part of the drug activity, the trooper contacted a state parole agent to inquire about Gould’s supervision status.  An agent with the Parole Board confirmed Gould’s supervision and noted he was on parole for several drug-related convictions.  Notably the parole agent indicated that Gould previously was sanctioned for staying overnight in Lancaster without prior approval.  His approved residence was in Harrisburg, and there was nothing showing Gould had permission to be in Lancaster overnight.

In light of this information, the parole agent traveled out to Lancaster to follow up on Gould.  In fact, the parole agent met up with the trooper at the hotel under investigation and staked it out, waiting for Gould to return.  He did not that night, but he did the next night at 1:30 a.m.  When the parole agent saw Gould pull up to the hotel in the vehicle described by the trooper, he pulled in behind it, blocking it in as a “safety” precaution; the agent preferred that Gould “not step on he gas and back out.”  Thus, blocked in, the agent approached Gould’s driver-side window, identified himself, and had Gould get out of the car.  (State troopers were around for back up.)  When Gould opened the door and got out of the car, the agent related that he “noticed a strong odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the car.” Based on this, the agent patted Gould down for weapons and during that pat-down he found “a large bundle of cash” in Gould’s pocket.  (It should be noted that as part of being on parole Gould had previously signed a consent form permitting parole officers to conduct warrantless searches of his person, property, and residence.)

After searching Gould, the agent asked why he was in Lancaster.  Gould said that his actual parole officer “knows” why he was there, and he was only at the hotel to pick someone up.  That being his explanation, the parole agent nonetheless indicated he was going to search the car; however, Gould protested noting the car was not his, it was borrowed.  But that did not deter the parole agent.  The parole agent indicated that based on what he observed, the fact that Gould was previously sanctioned for being in Lancaster, and given his past drug use, he was going to search the car.  And when he did he found a marijuana cigarette and large plastic bag containing many smaller plastic bags.  Based on the agent’s experience, what he found was either cocaine or heroin.  Accordingly, the agent detained Gould for violating his parole conditions, and he called the trooper to notify him that he was doing so.  Once detained by the parole agent, a State Police drug-detection dog sniffed Gould’s vehicle and alerted to the presence of controlled substances in the vehicle.  As a result, the car was towed and the investigating trooper applied for a search warrant to search the vehicle.  Interestingly, within the application to the warrant the trooper made no mention of the parole agent or his initial search of the car.  Instead, the trooper only detailed the results of his investigation, activity observed at the hotel, and the dog sniff of the car’s exterior.  Generally, too, the application alleged a confidential informant implicating Gould in the sale of heroin and cocaine.

Based on all of this, Gould sought suppression of the evidence gathered against him on the grounds that “the parole agent lacked reasonable suspicion to detain [him] and perform the initial search, and because [the parole agent] was improperly acting at the behest of the State Police.”  The trial court denied suppression, of course, and the Superior Court affirmed.  The Superior Court reasoned that the parole agent had reasonable suspicion to detain Gould (i.e. when he blocked him in) based on the credible investigative information received from the trooper, his own corroborating observations, and the fact that Gould was in violation of his parole conditions, being in a place he was not authorized to be.  The Superior Court said this was enough to suspect that Gould was in violation of his parole and therefore enough to stop and investigate him.  The search of the car, too, was permissible in light of the odor of marijuana emanating from the car, the Superior Court said.  Thus this initial search and seizure was reasonable and constitutional.

The Superior Court then went on to determine that the parole agent was not improperly acting at the behest of the State Police and there was sufficient probable cause, independent from the parole agent, to support the State Police’s warrant.

The issue of the entanglement between the parole agent and the State Police was referred to as the “Stalking Horse Doctrine.”  The Superior Court said this in that regard:

Even where a parole officer has reasonable suspicion to search, “Pennsylvania courts historically invalidated probation officers’ searches and subsequent seizures where the probation officers essentially switched hates, and, in all relevant respects, became police officers.”  This is referred to as the “stalking horse” doctrine. The rationale behind this rule is to prevent a parole officer from aiding the police “by statutorily circumventing the warrant requirement, based on reasonable suspicion, instead of the heightened standard of probable cause.”  In determining which “hat” the parole agent is wearing, the determinative element is the purpose of the search.

Given this doctrine, the Superior Court said that it was not implicated here because the evidence developed in the suppression court failed to demonstrate that the State Police directed the parole agent to detain, search, or arrest Gould.  Thus the Superior Court was unable to conclude that the parole agent was acting as a “stalking horse.” Therefore, the evidence was properly admitted against Gould.