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.

Unwarranted Search of the Curtilage of a Home

Most American citizens know the Fourth Amendment protects their home against unwarranted searches and seizures, but what about the yard, patio, and other curtilage of the home?

Extended protection

Photo by: Natalie Maynor

The Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” but how far does the protection of the home extend? Although the Fourth Amendment doesn’t specify the area surrounding the dwelling as part of the protected home, the United States Supreme Court has on more than one occasion extended the constitutional protection to include the curtilage surrounding a home. In Oliver v. United States (1984) the curtilage was said to be the “area to which extends the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of man’s home and the privacies of life”.

Curtilage defined

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, the Curtilage of a home is “The enclosed space of ground and buildings immediately surrounding a dwelling-house. In its most comprehensive and proper legal signification, it includes all that space of ground and buildings thereon which is usually enclosed within the general fence immediately surrounding a principal messuage and outbuildings, and yard closely adjoining to a dwelling-house”. The U.S. Supreme court stated in United States v. Dunn (1987) that: curtilage questions should be resolved with particular reference to four factors: the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home, whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home, the nature of the uses to which the area is put, and the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by.”

Visibility of illegal items or activity

Law enforcement officers are permitted to enter the curtilage of a home to knock on the door, although this does not permit them to do a search of the perimeter of a home without a warrant. This protection of the home’s curtilage does not dismiss illegal items or activities in plain view however. In United States v. Bausby (2013) officers saw a motorcycle in the yard of Chris Bausby that matched the description of a motorcycle stolen months prior. The motorcycle was in plain site from the street, and had a “for-sale” sign drawing attention from anyone passing by. Officers entered the yard, knocked on the door, and the proceeded to identify the VIN number on the motorcycle. A search warrant was issued and the stolen motorcycle and other items were confiscated. U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a Bausby’s claim of a Fourth Amendment violation by stating: “What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection” (Katz v. United States 1967).

Photo by: Nana B. Agyei

Open fields doctrine

While items openly visible to the public are not protected under the home’s curtilage, neither are large areas on the property that are unable to be closed in such as open fields. In Oliver v. United States (1984) The Supreme Court noted that “. . . open fields do not provide the setting for those intimate activities that the Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance. There is no societal interest in protecting the privacy of those activities, such as the cultivation of crops that occur in open fields.”

Help defending searches of home’s curtilage

Utah residents facing criminal charges who feel their Fourth Amendment rights protecting their home’s curtilage from unwarranted searches and seizures was violated are encouraged to find a reputable attorney to go over the case. A respectable attorney will help to defend the charges against them and ensure they maintain the privacy and protection promised by the United States Constitution.

Community Caretaking Doctrine – Another Exception to the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects the people against “unreasonable searches and seizures” without a valid warrant, however there is an court-ruled exception to this protection known as the Community Caretaking Doctrine that all citizens should be aware of.

Vehicle searches

Photo by: West Midlands Police

The Community Caretaking Doctrine was first brought to light in the case of Cady V. Dombrowski in 1973. Chester J. Dombrowski was a Chicago, Illinois police officer who was driving intoxicated and crashed his car in a town just north over the border in Wisconsin. While Dombrowski lay unconscious in the hospital, police towed the car and later went back to search it after learning Dombrowski was a Chicago police officer who should have been in possession of a service weapon. Fearful the weapon could fall into the wrong hands, officers returned to the car and did a thorough search. Instead of finding Dombrowski’s gun in the car, officers found bloody items in the trunk that led them to discover Dombrowski had been involved in a murder. Dombrowski tried to fight the murder charges, stating his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated when police searched his vehicle without probable cause of a crime and a warrant.

Home searches

In People v. Ray (1999), officers were dispatched to a home after a concerned neighbor reported the door ajar and the house in disarray. When police arrived, the neighbor confirmed the home in question and the officers observed the front door wide open and the interior appeared to have been burglarized. Items were everywhere, things tipped over and one of the officers noted it “appeared to be ransacked.” Concerned for the well-being of the resident living there and suspicious a burglar suspect may still be inside, the two officers entered the home without a warrant. Once inside, officers merely observed the scene, not touching or opening anything.

Photo by: West Midlands Police

They did not find a burglar or a resident in need of help, but they did see a large amount of cocaine. After seeing the drugs, officers returned later with a search warrant and arrested Andre Lamont Ray, the resident of the home, for possession of cocaine with intent to sell among other drug charges. Ray also tried to fight the charges against him, just like Dombrowski, he felt his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches had been violated.

Fourth Amendment rights

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects the people against unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause and a lawful warrant. If a search is performed without either permission from the person or a warrant signed by a judge, any evidence obtained through the search is not permissible in court. There are a handful of exceptions to the Fourth Amendment however, such as: when consent is given, if illegal evidence is in plain view, or if local officers “perceived a need to act in the proper discharge of his/her community caretaking functions” as stated in People v. Ray (1999).

Community Caretaking Doctrine

Photo by: Chris Yarzab

The Community Caretaking Doctrine is the result of the people expecting more from police officers than upholding the law. Officers are also expected to serve and protect – always willing to come to the aid of any person in need of help. The U.S. Supreme Court stated in Cady v. Dombrowski that officers are subject to activities that are not related to their criminal investigations and are “community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” In People v. Ray, the superior court noted that in “[these] types of situations ( . . . ) I don’t believe police officers acted improperly in the sense that they were performing a community service of community value. That’s what they are there to do.”

Limitations to the exception

The community caretaking doctrine seems like an open-ended invitation for officers to conduct an unlawful search in the name of helping out a citizen. There are limitations to this warrantless search however that includes officers distinguishing real threats from possible ones and acting on questionable information. Anyone who feels their Fourth Amendment rights were violated due to Community Caretaking loophole and are now facing charges should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.