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.

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.