Utah Residents Unintentionally Consent to a Home Search

Too many residents in Utah will give unneeded consent to a home search by police while others may unintentionally consent to a home search just by answering the front door.

Consent to a home search

Photo by: Kelly Parker McPhearson

There are some Utah residents who are not afraid to say “no” when a request is made to search a home without a warrant or probable cause. Knowing and exercising the right to refuse a search is a big step, yet there is more that can be done to protect a home against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Front door search

Those who aren’t easily intimidated when approached by law enforcement should remember that not all searches require physical access to the inside of a residence. Officers can use a few tricks to obtain a glance inside a resident’s home without ever taking one step past the threshold. Two strategies commonly used together are the “knock and talk” combined with “Plain View Doctrine”.

  • The “knock and talk” routine is just as it sounds – officers knock on the door and talk. Anybody may go to a resident’s door and knock. That is a perfectly community based notion that is not against the law for regular citizens and therefore, not against the law for police either. When police knock however, they are generally not just casually shooting the breeze while on the clock. Their visits are typically done to obtain information or clarify facts that may or may not incriminate someone. During these “knock and talks”, officer can chat, ask questions, or use the “Plain View Doctrine” to locate illegal contraband.

    Photo by: Mike Lewinski

  • The “Plain View Doctrine” does not give police permission to enter a person’s home and begin opening drawers and closets. It merely allows them to be in a spot where they are either invited to be or which would be common for a visitor. When in publicly acceptable area such as a front step or living room (if invited in), there they will use sight and other senses to lawfully observe around them for anything illegal such as drugs or evidence of a crime.

Exercising complete rights against unreasonable searches

Although it may come off as rude, it is perfectly acceptable to not open the door when someone comes a knocking, even if it is law enforcement. Residents have several options when police officers knock at the door: invite officers inside, speak from the open door, meet officers outside to talk, or even have a conversation through a closed door. While the latter option may sound discourteous, it can be done politely and with the utmost respect towards the attending officers. Anyone facing problems after trying to exercise their complete rights against unreasonable searches is encouraged to seek a reputable attorney for legal counsel.

Police Looking in Windows May Count as Unreasonable Searches in Utah

Utah residents who keep their blinds drawn for personal or legal reasons may be surprised to know that some bare windows are protected from unreasonable searches by police under the Fourth Amendment.

Privacy from neighbors

Photo by: Bandita

Windows are a way for homeowners to let in natural light while giving them a view to the outside world. In this regard however, it can also allow those outside to see what is happening indoors. The majority of Utah residents know they should give their neighbors a certain degree a privacy by not approaching another’s home to peek in the windows. This common courtesy is afforded by most even if the windows are unobstructed by curtains or drapes. Likewise, most understand that windows seen from the street or those visible when knocking on the front door should either be covered for privacy or expected to be seen by anyone within eyesight.

Privacy from law enforcement

While respectful neighbors use the unspoken code of neighbor conduct to refrain from peeping in windows, police officers are likewise limited but through legal barriers set in place by the Constitution of the United States of America . The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution 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.”People have the right to have privacy in their homes and should not have to worry about their home being visually searched from an open window.

Plain View doctrine

Photo by: Alexander Baxevanis

Homeowners should expect the interior of their residence to be protected from prying officers, regardless of whether or not the blinds are drawn. This does not mean they have full privacy from law enforcement looking in from outside however. If a police officer can see into a window from the street, it is fair game. If there is a 5 foot tall marijuana plant basking in the afternoon sunlight through a person’s living room window, officers can see that plainly from the public street and then have probable cause to enter the home and confiscate the plant and accessories without a warrant. Additionally, just as a neighbor is allowed to enter another person’s property to knock on the door, officers are permitted to do the same. Often law enforcement will knock on the door as a friendly “hello” while using the opportunity to look through the door and nearby windows for illegal contraband in Plain View.

Police and unreasonable searches

Creeping around a home while peering in windows is rude and unacceptable behavior for police and residents alike. Glancing in a window directly near the front door while waiting for the resident to answer is something that everyone does (whether or not they will admit it). Since the curious glance in a nearby window is tolerated from regular citizens, officers are permitted to do so as well. If they can see the contents of a room through an exposed window while standing at the front step, it is acceptable. If they take a few steps away from the front door to get a better look into another window, that would not be justifiable behavior for a respectful neighbor and it shouldn’t be for police either. In fact, when police leave the step to unlawfully search from the home’s curtilage is where it becomes a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Legal counsel for questionable search and seizure

Whenever a physical or visual search of someone’s home or other property is done without a warrant, it can raise a lot a questions regarding validity of the reasoning behind such a search. Instead of assuming no one with a badge ever makes a mistake, anyone facing criminal charges where a questionable search is key evidence should obtain legal counsel who will review the case carefully. A reputable attorney can help a defendant ensure that their rights were in no way violated by unreasonable searches and seizures.

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.