Automobile Exception and Warrantless Searches on Private Property in Utah

Utah residents who have their vehicles searched by police should know their rights within the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception and how to avoid warrantless searches on private property.

Fourth Amendment

Photo by: Drew Stephens

The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” While this amendment protects people by ensuring their private property is not searched without a warrant, there are some allowances for warrantless police searches that may arise. One such allowance is the known as the automobile exception.

Automobile exception

The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment came about in 1925 during the 13 year alcohol prohibition when a bootlegger named George Carroll was under investigation for transporting and selling alcohol. Carroll had offered an undercover police officer alcohol, yet did not go through with the sale. Later Carroll was spotted driving down the highway and officers, who assuming Carroll was transporting alcohol, pulled him over and searched his vehicle where prohibited alcohol was located. Carroll tried to fight the charges, stating he had been illegally searched. The court noted that because officers had probable cause to search the vehicle and due to the fact that a motor vehicle could “. . . be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the arrant must be sought”, a warrant was not necessary. Other allowances were eventually added to the automobile exception allowing warrantless searches of vehicles that are in police custody as well as searches of vehicles that aren’t at risk of being removed from the location.

Vehicle searches at home

Photo by: Yngve Roennike

When a vehicle is being searched by law enforcement, Utah residents may wonder if their garage, a nearby yard, or any area of their property may also be at risk of being searched. Unless a warrant is issued specifying otherwise, the automobile exception does not allow law enforcement to search the area surrounding a vehicle if it is on private property. In fact, the automobile exception doesn’t even allow officers to enter onto a person’s property to do a vehicle search. In Collins V. Virginia (2018) Virginia resident Ryan Collins was suspected of being in possession of a stolen motorcycle after a picture of a motorcycle matching the description of the stolen one was seen on Collins’ Facebook page. Officers went to Collins’ home and observed something under a white tarp in the driveway. Without a warrant or Collins’ permission, officers entered onto Collins’ property and looked under the tarp. The stolen motorcycle was there, and Collins’ was arrested. After appealing his conviction, The Virginia Court of appeals stated that “the automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.”

Ways around a search warrant

Officers are not permitted to enter a home or its curtilage to search a vehicle or the surrounding area, but there is nothing stopping them from asking permission to look around. It is even permissible to enter the property and knock on the front door. While a request to search may appear to be innocent or by contrast intimidating, it is merely a simple way for law enforcement to get around obtaining a search warrant. Utah residents are encouraged to be cordial when officers request warrantless search but to exercise their constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. For more information related to legal charges sustained during a warrantless police search, contact a qualified criminal defense attorney.

Marital Violations in Utah

Utah has some well-known laws regarding marital violations, yet there are others that may surprise even long-time residents.

Offenses against the Family

Photo by: Abhishek Jacob

Utah is known to be a family-friendly state and as such has certain laws in place to protect families by criminalizing “Offenses against the Family” as described in Chapter 7 of the Utah Criminal Code. This chapter includes laws pertaining to abortion, failure to support a family, sale of children, as well as marital violations.

Marital violations

Many of the listed marital violations found in Utah Criminal Code are understandably punishable by law, however there are some that are notably dated. Bigamy, child bigamy, and incest are all felony marital violations that are noted by the general public as being punishable criminal offenses. The other two sections listed as marital violations pertain to adultery and fornication-two areas that may not be viewed by everyone as being criminal in nature.

Adultery

According to Utah Code 76-7-103 “A married person commits adultery when he voluntarily has sexual intercourse with a person other than his spouse.” While most agree with this definition of adultery, many are shocked to hear that it is against the law in Utah. That section regarding marital violations goes on to note that “Adultery is a class B misdemeanor” which Utah Courts state is punishable with a county jail term of “up to six months in jail [and] up to $1,000 fine or compensatory service.

Fornication

Photo by: Pete Birkinshaw

The following section goes one step further by not only punishing unfaithful spouses, but consenting adults who consummate their relationship prior to marriage. 76-7-104 states: “Any unmarried person who shall voluntarily engage in sexual intercourse with another is guilty of fornication. Fornication is a class B misdemeanor.” This law which was enacted in the 1973 General Session was likely approved by a generation where such actions were abhorrable.

Socially unacceptable, not criminal

Just because something seems wrong, does not mean it is necessarily criminal. While most Utah residents frown upon cheating spouses, not all agree that couples should save themselves for marriage. Some issues are better left for couples to decide for themselves.

Domestic Dispute in Springville Ends with Accidental Discharging of a Firearm within City Limits

A domestic dispute between two couples and a relative ended with an accidental discharging of a firearm within city limits.

Domestic disturbance

Photo by: Marco Verch

Police officers were dispatched to a call that someone had discharged a firearm within city limits and discovered a car speeding away from the scene. After pulling over the vehicle, officers discovered a car overloaded with people, two of which were injured. One was suffering from a head injury while another had a gunshot wound to the foot. Returning to the area in which the firearm had been discharged, officers were able to determine the individual’s head injury and the other person’s bullet hole in his foot to have been the result of a domestic dispute that had become violent. The shooting was accidental, yet the man with the weapon will likely face charges for assault for pistol-whipping the individual with a head injury, brandishing a weapon in a threatening manner, and discharging a firearm within city limits.

State laws

Utah is thought to be a more gun friendly state, yet there are strict laws and ordinances in place regarding where guns are allowed and where they can be discharged. Utah law 76-10-508 warns: “A person may not discharge any kind of dangerous weapon or firearm:

(i) From an automobile or other vehicle;
(ii) From, upon, or across any highway;
(iii) At any road signs placed upon any highways of the state;
(iv) At any communications equipment of property of public utilities . . . ;
(v) At railroad equipment or facilities including any sign or signal;
(vi) Within Utah State Park[s] . . .;
(vii) Without written permission to discharge the dangerous weapon from the owner or person in charge of the property within 600 feet of . . . a house . . . or any structure in which a domestic animal is kept or fed”.

Discharging a firearm within city limits

Photo by: Micki Krimmel

Beyond the above listed areas, Utah law does not specify where in a city firearms are lawful to be discharged. Utah Code 53-5a-102 states “All authority to regulate firearms is reserved to the state except where the Legislature specifically delegates responsibility to local authorities or state entities.” Many counties or cities have their own ordinances pertaining to discharging a firearm within city limits. The city of Springville where the domestic dispute resulting in accidental discharging of a firearm was reported states in statute 8-3-102 that “except as permitted by subsection (2) [regarding hunting in rural areas during designated seasons], it shall be unlawful for any person within the limits of the City to discharge any rifle, gun, pistol, air gun, bean shooter, flipper, sling shot, or any other instrument which expels a projectile, except in self-defense, or, in the case of target shooting, upon issuance of a permit by the Police Department. “

Self-defense or Castle Doctrine

There are some occurrences when discharging a firearm within city limits would not result in criminal charges. Some such instances include self-defense cases when a person is found to be justified in using a weapon to protect themselves. Additionally, while state and many city laws prohibit firearm use near a residence, Utah homeowners are allowed to defend their home from dangerous intruders. This freedom to protect a home and its residents is known as Castle Doctrine.

Check with your local area

Besides in instances of self-defense or Castle Doctrine, all Utah residents should be aware that brandishing a weapon during an altercation or discharging a firearm in city limits will likely be frowned upon by law enforcement. Others who may want to engage in innocent target shooting or “air-soft wars” may want to check with their local area ordinances prior to engaging in any such activity that could result in criminal charges.