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.

Questionable DNA Evidence Gathering Upheld by Supreme Court

Questionable DNA evidence gathering upheld

Photo: Public Domain Pictures

Most people know that if a crime has been committed and fingerprints are left behind, detectives can inspect those fingerprints to determine if you are a match and therefore committed the crime. Other evidence commonly gathered may be blood, saliva, or semen. However, a recent case in Maryland brought the issue of DNA evidence gathering under the spotlight. In the case, after a suspect voluntarily came into a police station for questioning on a rape case, the police swabbed the armrests of the chair he was sitting in for skin cells to test DNA, leading to his conviction. The man took his case to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which upheld the conviction. He appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), but they denied the request for review.

The Case was Closed, but was it Lawful?

According to an article in ARS Technica, in 2006 a Maryland woman was raped in home. Police interviewed approximately 20 suspects over the course of two years in an attempt to locate the perpetrator. Each of the suspects voluntarily provided DNA samples to the police, but none of them matched the genetic material from the crime scene.

However, Glenn Raynor, a former classmate of the victim and man who matched the physical description of the suspect, refused to provide a sample of his DNA. However, he did voluntarily come into the police station, spoke with police, and stated that he was not the rapist.

After Raynor left, police swabbed the armrests of the chair where he had been sitting. They were able to gather skin cell DNA evidence which they used to link Raynor to the crime scene. In his trial, Raynor moved to suppress the DNA evidence, claiming it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant. In order to obtain a warrant, there must be probable cause, and Raynor claimed they didn’t have the probable cause necessary.

The DNA evidence was allowed in the case, and Raynor was sentenced to life in prison. He took the case to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which upheld the conviction on a 4-3 vote, and on Monday, March 2, without any comment, SCOTUS refused to review the case.

Concerns Regarding Questionable DNA Evidence Gathering

In addition to Raynor taking his case to the Supreme Court, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also filed an amicus [friend of the court] brief, urging the Supreme Court to accept the case.

According to an article on the EFF website, they are claiming that DNA evidence used in cases like Raynor v. Maryland are violating people’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy regarding their personal genetic material.

“As human beings, we shed hundreds of thousands of skin and hair cells daily, with each cell containing information about who we are, where we come from, and who we will be,” EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said. “The court must recognize that allowing police the limitless ability to collect and search genetic material will usher in a future where DNA may be collected from any person at any time, entered into and checked against DNA databases, and used to conduct pervasive surveillance.”

They went on to say that just because the cost of DNA evidence analysis technology is dropping doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be used more. They pointed to the fact that in some cases, DNA “can allow police to identify a person’s relatives, turning family members into inadvertent ‘genetic informants’ on each other.”

In 2013, in a similar case from Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that police may take a DNA sample from someone who has been arrested without the need for warrant. However, Raynor’s attorney, Byron Warnken, said the same shouldn’t apply to his client because Raynor was not under arrest at the time.

In the Maryland Court of Appeals, the dissenting judges said the case of Raynor v. Maryland set a dangerous precedent.

“The Majority’s approval of such police procedure means, in essence, that a person desiring to keep her DNA profile private, must conduct her public affairs in a hermetically sealed hazmat suit. Moreover, the Majority opinion will likely have the consequence that many people will be reluctant to go to the police station to voluntarily provide information about crimes for fear that they, too, will be added to the CODIS database…. The Majority’s holding means that a person can no longer vote, participate in a jury, or obtain a driver’s license, without opening up his genetic material for state collection and codification. Unlike DNA left in the park or a restaurant, these are all instances where the person has identified himself to the government authority.”

However, the majority for the alluded to the concept that leaving behind DNA is like leaving behind a fingerprint and is therefore fair game.

“In the end, we hold that DNA testing of the 13 identifying junk loci within genetic material, not obtained by means of a physical intrusion into the person’s body, is no more a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, than is the testing of fingerprints, or the observation of any other identifying feature revealed to the public—visage, apparent age, body type, skin color.”