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.

Contents of Garbage Can Not Protected From Police Searches

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”, but this protection does not always extend to the contents of a garbage can left outside a home in Utah.

Reasonable expectation of privacy?

Photo by: Matthew Paul Argall

When someone throws away an item in a public trash can or dumpster, that individual knows their discarded garbage is no longer their property and that item may be accessible to anybody who happens upon it. When something is thrown away at home, most residents feel confident knowing the privacy they have for their home and property is extended to the contents of their trash as well. Once trashes have been emptied into the outside bin to be collected by city workers, the majority of Utah residents would still feel their privacy were violated if anyone were to go through their garbage prior to it being collected.

Dumpster diving

There are many reasons why individuals would go through the contents of someone else’s garbage can. Some of these reasons are criminal in nature while others are for survival. Those rummaging through the garbage out of necessity may possibly be searching for discarded food of decent quality or scrap metal to exchange for cash. Others collecting trash for criminal purposes may be collecting personal information to aid in identity theft. Whatever the reason, a Utah resident’s trash can is typically considered private and going through another’s trash is frowned upon by law enforcement. Some cities including Orem, Provo, and Taylorsville have cracked down on the trash collecting practice in the past by issuing citations for those caught “stealing” another person’s garbage. This expectation of privacy is often supported by law enforcement, unless they are the ones going through the trash.

Double standard

Although law enforcement expects everyday residents to respect each other’s privacy in regards to their trash cans, officers themselves are not expected to abide by the same standard. In State v. Jackson (1997) a Provo police officer went to the home of defendants, one of which had a prior history of drug charges. Once at the home, the officer saw two garbage cans that had been put out for collection by the defendants. The officer then proceeded to go through the garbage cans, finding small amounts of marijuana as well as drug paraphernalia. After taking these items out of the trash as evidence, the officer was then granted a search warrant for the interior of the home and found other drug-related items. All three defendants whose garbage was “lawfully” searched were convicted of possession and sentenced to three years of probation and a large fine.

Garbage in curtilage of home

Photo by: Shlala

As frustrating as it is that the same trash protected from pubic searches isn’t awarded the same expectation of privacy from police searches, residents might consider the move excusable seeing how the garbage cans were left out by the road. Unfortunately, not all officers wait for the trash to be moved off the property by a suspect. In 2015, Sioux Falls, SD police Officers worked together with the garbage company to collect trash from a possible drug suspect named James Thompson. The garbage collector entered onto Thompson’s property, took the garbage can from the side of the garage and emptied it into the garbage truck while officers watched. Officers then searched through the dumped garbage and found drug paraphernalia. A warrant was then issued on Thompson’s home where other illegal items were located. Thompson moved to suppress all evidence, especially since the garbage cans were removed from off his private property. The courts denied his motion stating that “It is well established that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in trash left for collection in an area accessible to the public.” Had his garbage cans been placed inside a garage or behind a fence, he may have been awarded more privacy over his trash.

Protecting rights to privacy

When it comes to police searches, many residents understand they have rights against unreasonable searches taking place inside their homes or vehicles. When the search occurs outside or within the curtilage of the home, the legality of the searches may be even more difficult to understand. For more information on charges stemming from these and other questionable searches and seizures, contact an attorney to discuss whether or not rights have been violated and all possible options moving forward with the case.

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.