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.