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.

No Reason Needed For Police to Ask to Enter Home

Police do not need a valid reason to ask someone if they can enter a home and unless a warrant is served, homeowners do not need to comply with the request.

Respect but protect

Photo by: West Midlands Police

Many Utah residents acknowledge police officers as being authority figures who can often be seen as intimidating. When an officer knocks on someone’s door, the first reaction a resident may have is to comply completely with anything the officer asks of them. They may think that anything other than complete submission is a sign of guilt. This can lead to a resident waiving his Fourth Amendment rights.

Knock and talk

In order for police officers to enter a home without permission, they need to have a legal warrant or reasonable grounds to do so. With a warrant in hand, police have the right to enter and search any areas outlined in the warrant. If officers do not have a warrant and have no valid reason to enter a home, they are still allowed to knock on the door, just like anybody else can. This is known as a simple “knock and talk”.

Permission not granted

During a “friendly” knock and talk, the homeowner has the option to:

• Talk to officers through the closed door;
• Open the door and answer questions at the door;
• Go outside to speak to officers on the porch; or
• Invite officers inside the residence to talk.

Unfortunately with nervousness and intimidation at work, the majority of people will be overly agreeable and give officers permission to enter their home. Once this is done, that resident has forfeited the protection given them under the Fourth Amendment. Utah residents are encouraged to keep calm when police come knocking and to be respectful while also protecting their rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. If permission is not given and officers enter and search the home anyway, any evidence could be no admissible in court. It is best to consult with an attorney regarding these matters.