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.

Is the Exterior of a Vehicle Protected from Searches by Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

A growing number of Utah residents are now realizing they have rights regarding unreasonable searches of their vehicle, but does the exterior of a vehicle have the same reasonable expectation of privacy?

Interior searches on vehicles

Photo by: West Midlands Police

An officer does not have permission to search the interior of a person’s vehicle unless they have permission, a warrant, or probable cause to do so. If the driver does not make the common mistake of trying to be overly agreeable by allowing an officer to perform an unreasonable search on a car, then the officer has to have a probable cause to search the car. Probable cause can include drugs in plain view or if the driver was going to be arrested anyway for a DUI, warrant, or other crime. If there is no probable cause for a search, it is okay to politely decline an unreasonable search.

Exterior searches of vehicles

Law enforcement are permitted to do a visible search of the exterior of a vehicle and this type of search should be expected during a traffic stops. If something illegal on the exterior of a vehicle is visible to the police officer, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Some exterior searches can go too far however. If an officer brings out a forensic kit, then the search could be headed towards a Fourth Amendment rights violation against a person’s belongings or property.

Fourth Amendment violation

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Photo by: West Midlands Police

An owner of a vehicle has possession of the entire car, not just the interior. Fingerprints, DNA, or other possible microscopic evidence on the vehicle that is not visible to the naked eye should be protected. If a driver leaves their car temporarily unattended in a public place, this does not give law enforcement permission to then swoop in to perform forensic searches of the car. Even when not occupied, the vehicle is still considered to be in their possession of the owner. Otherwise, they would not be liable for anything related to the car in their absence, such as parking tickets.

Possible rights violation? Ask an attorney prior to court date

If a search has been made of the interior or exterior of a vehicle and the proper channels were not followed to conduct those searches, anything found could be thrown out in court. It is important to discuss whether or not there is an option to dismiss evidence from unreasonable search and seizures. A qualified criminal defense attorney can help defendants fully understand their rights regarding searches and seizures and whether or not they had a reasonable expectation of privacy during a police search.

No Drugs Located after Drug Dog Alerted on Vehicle

Utah motorists may wonder what their rights are regarding searches from a drug dog of their car and what to do when no drugs are located after an alert on a vehicle.

Sniffing isn’t considered searching

Drug Dog

Photo by: David Beach

Just as an officer is allowed to look in a window to see if drugs are in plain view, a drug dog is allowed to sniff vehicles without a warrant as it doesn’t violate any rights of the motorist. The inspection by the drug dog cannot cause the motorist to be detained while the dog sniffs around however. It has to be done during the same time that an officer is performing a traffic stop for a legitimate reason.

Probable cause

If a sniffer dog alerts after sniffing a vehicle, he is giving his handler some kind of a sign, however subtle, that there are drugs in the vehicle. Once the dog has alerted, the officer then has probable cause to search the vehicle. Any drugs confiscated from that point are done so with probable cause and can be used as evidence in court.

Drug dog false alarm

One issue that occasionally comes up when a drug dog alerts during a traffic stop is that no drugs turn up inside the vehicle. When this happens, motorists may wonder whether or not the dog actually alerted on the vehicle. They may just be grateful that the alert turned out to be a false alarm and be on their way. However, their constitutional rights may have just been violated by the officer and that should not be ignored. For more information on your Fourth Amendment rights during a traffic stop, especially when it involves a drugdog contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.