U.S. appeals court sides with parolee after search of girlfriend's Little Rock home

The federal courthouse in St. Louis is shown in this June 3, 2011, file photo. The courthouse is the main office of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, as well as the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (AP/Jeff Roberson)
The federal courthouse in St. Louis is shown in this June 3, 2011, file photo. The courthouse is the main office of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, as well as the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

When he was released on parole in 2019, convicted murderer Justin Thabit signed a waiver allowing law enforcement to conduct warrantless searches of his residence, vehicle or person.

But a federal judge said police went too far when they searched the Little Rock home of Thabit's girlfriend just a few months later. Throwing out the evidence obtained in the search, the judge ruled that police had no good evidence Thabit actually lived there.

Last week, an appeals court agreed, handing Thabit, who faces multiple drug and firearms charges stemming from the search, what his attorney called a "huge win" that will have implications for similar cases.

Thabit was on parole for the October 2001 beating death of James Medley, 21, during a gang initiation in the parking lot of the Chateau Apartments on Asher Avenue in Little Rock.

Sentenced to 26 years in prison by a Pulaski County circuit judge, Thabit was first paroled in 2016, then returned to prison in 2018 on a parole violation and released again in March 2019.

He was arrested June 18, 2019, after law enforcement officers from Pulaski County, Little Rock and the U.S. Marshals Service -- under authority of a search waiver -- searched a home where they reported seizing drugs and guns, including a shotgun with a barrel shorter than 18 inches and no serial number.

Authorities say they had begun searching for Thabit after he missed two visits with his parole officer in 2019 and was considered to be an absconder.

According to court records, parole officers visited Thabit's mother's home -- the address he had listed on the search waiver -- on March 14, 2019, and were told that although he had a room there, he had not spent the night for several weeks. The absconder warrant was issued the following day.

Thabit was found at his girlfriend's home after a tip from a confidential informant, according to court documents. A Pulaski County sheriff's office investigator who testified at Thabit's evidence suppression hearing in June 2021, however, told the court he could not recall how the tip had come to him and that had not documented it.

Following that hearing and another in December 2021 in which Thabit's attorney, Michael Kaiser of Little Rock, argued that the search was illegal because the home was not Thabit's, Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. ordered that all physical evidence from the search be suppressed.

Federal prosecutors appealed. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Marshall's ruling, saying police had not established that Thabit was actually residing at his girlfriend's home.

The panel -- consisting of Chief Judge Lavenski Smith of Little Rock, Judge Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Judge Steven Grasz of Omaha, Neb. -- ruled that Marshall's decision was based on a lack of reasonable suspicion that Thabit lived at the address being searched. But the panel noted that the 8th Circuit had never ruled on whether "reasonable suspicion" was the right legal standard.

"We hold that [the higher legal standard of] probable cause is the appropriate standard in a case involving a dwelling of a third party," Smith wrote for the panel. "An officer must have probable cause to believe a dwelling is the residence of a parolee in order to initiate a warrantless search of a residence not known to be the home of a parolee."

Agreeing with a 9th Circuit opinion, he said the "potential for violations of the constitutional rights of third parties necessitates a more rigorous standard than reasonable suspicion."

Smith said that although the state has important interests in supervising parolees, the "narrow application of this standard is not a burdensomely high bar for law enforcement to meet." While the search waiver signed by parolees negates any need for police to develop a reason to search a residence, they "simply must possess probable cause that the parolee actually resides at the search location," Smith wrote.

On Friday, Kaiser said the decision should have far-reaching implications.

"The government played themselves," he said. "In an effort to go after my client because of his past transgressions, they actually created horrific law for themselves."

Kaiser said Marshall's ruling only established that parole officials needed reasonable suspicion that a parolee resides at a certain residence to conduct a warrantless search, but "the 8th Circuit went way further than that and said the result was right but it's actually probable cause, which is a much higher standard."

"They lost this one case but by appealing it, they have ended up creating law that will be used against them for eternity ... They took a bad result and turned it into terrible law for themselves by their own actions," Kaiser said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Givens, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock, did not address the wider implications of the decision and said no decision had been made as of Friday whether to appeal further.

"The decision to appeal an adverse ruling will first be made by [Assistant U.S. Attorney and Appellate Chief] Stephanie Mazzanti in consultation with leadership in the office," Givens said. "That would then have to be submitted to the solicitor general's office in D.C."

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