DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — In a bipartisan move, Sens. Orrin Hatch, Dianne Feinstein, Thom Tillis and Joe Manchin have introduced the Probation Officer Protection Act of 2017, a bill that will protect probation officers and enhance their ability to do their job by giving them authority to arrest a third party who forcibly interferes with an officer’s performance of his or her official duties.
This commonsense, bipartisan legislation helps to ensure that federal probation officers have the proper tools and authority necessary to protect themselves from hostile individuals who may attempt to harm them or otherwise interfere while they perform their important work. This bill also supports our men and women in law enforcement by freeing up precious time and resources for the local police, who will no longer need to accompany and provide backup for probation officers. Because many states already grant state probation officers authority to arrest third parties who forcibly interfere with an officer’s performance of his or her official duties, it only makes sense to give federal probation officers the same authority.
Under current law, a federal probation officer may arrest a probationer or individual on supervised release if the officer has probable cause to believe that the offender has violated a condition of his or her probation or release. The officer may make the arrest with or without a warrant. However, Feinstein said, officers are often placed in “compromising situations” when they attempt a search of property.
“Friends and relatives of individuals on probation may threaten violence or block them from conducting their search,” Feinstein said. “This has happened several times in California. Our bill addresses this problem by allowing probation officers to arrest individuals who try to stop them from doing their jobs.”
In addition to doing their jobs, Tillis also mentioned the need of probation officers to protect themselves in general.
“Probation officers play a critical role in our criminal justice system by promoting public safety and working with offenders to manage risks and reduce recidivism,” Tillis said. “Our probation officers also need the ability to protect themselves, and this bipartisan legislation will give them the necessary authority to arrest individuals who threaten their safety or interfere with their job performance that is so crucial to the safety of our communities.”
In practice, formal arrests by probation officers are rare. Rather, probation officers use their authority to lawfully engage in less restrictive uses of force, such as ordering an offender to stand aside during a search, instructing an offender not to interfere with the officer’s movements or in rare cases, temporarily restraining an offender who poses a physical danger.
Current law does not, however, address a probation officer’s arrest authority in situations where a third party attempts to physically obstruct the officer or cause the officer physical harm.
Although obstructing a probation officer in the performance of his or her official duties is illegal, when a probation officer encounters an uncooperative or violent third party, the officer may be forced to retreat because he or she lacks authority to restrain the third party.
This lack of authority and resulting need to retreat exposes probation officers to greater risk of harm and allows the third party – along with any evidence or individual the third party is attempting to shield – to elude capture. As a result, evidence that an offender has violated a condition of his or her probation or supervised release, or evidence of other criminal activity, may be lost.
In some circumstances, a probation officer may be able to enlist the assistance of local police in responding to a hostile third party. But this is not, in and of itself, an adequate solution.
First, unless the probation officer knows in advance that he or she is likely to encounter a hostile third party and can find an available police officer to accompany him or her, the probation officer must wait for police backup to arrive. This is often not a viable option.
Second, even if a local police officer is available to accompany the probation officer, because the probation officer lacks arrest authority, he or she cannot lawfully assist the police officer if the police officer is accosted.
Third, requiring federal probation officers to rely on local law enforcement in responding to uncooperative or violent third parties burdens local police departments and diverts police resources from other uses.
“Our law enforcement officers throughout West Virginia and across the country go above and beyond to protect our communities,” Manchin said. “Our probation officers need the authority to do their jobs, and I am proud to be an original cosponsor on this bill that will ensure they are able to protect the communities they serve and make us all safer.”
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