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

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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.

Man Accidently Pocket Dials 911, Leaves Drugs in Plain Sight of Attending Officers

A Utah man accidentally pocket dialed 911 then permitted attending officers to enter home where drugs were left in plain sight.

Butt dial

Photo by: George Gillams

47 year old Lance Jensen was at his home in Orem, Utah when he accidently pocket dialed 911. Instead of telling the 911 operator that the call was an accident, Jensen quickly hung up. Following protocol for 911 hang-ups, the operator called Jensen back to ensure that he didn’t need police or emergency assistance. When Jensen answered the phone, he was acting strange and wouldn’t cooperate with answering any of the operators simple questions such as his name and if he was in trouble. The 911 operator felt someone should check to make sure everything was alright and sent officers to Jensen’s location.

Safe behind bars

When officers arrived at Jensen’s location they realized that he was safe, yet had a warrant for his arrest. During Jensen’s arrest officers entered Jensen’s bedroom at his request for some reading glasses. While retrieving the glasses, officers observed baggies full of a white powder in plain view and tested it on the spot for illegal substances. The test came back positive for cocaine which led to the search of the home for more drugs and the arrest of other individuals. Jensen was booked into the Utah County Jail for his warrant along with drug charges.

In plain view

Although officers had an arrest warrant to arrest Jensen, they did not have a search warrant or reasonable cause such as a protective sweep to look around inside the home. In this case however, they did not need a search warrant or reasonable cause since Jensen asked them to go into his room, thereby permitting them to find anything that was in plain view. The Plain View Doctrine allows officers to search with their eyes from the doorstep of a home or from inside if they are invited in. Had Jensen accepted his arrest for the warrant and worried about his glasses later, he would not have been facing additional charges. Also his friends would not have been involved. For more information on home searches and what constitutes a lawful search, speak with an experienced attorney.

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

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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.