Utah Residents Unintentionally Consent to a Home Search

Too many residents in Utah will give unneeded consent to a home search by police while others may unintentionally consent to a home search just by answering the front door.

Consent to a home search

Photo by: Kelly Parker McPhearson

There are some Utah residents who are not afraid to say “no” when a request is made to search a home without a warrant or probable cause. Knowing and exercising the right to refuse a search is a big step, yet there is more that can be done to protect a home against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Front door search

Those who aren’t easily intimidated when approached by law enforcement should remember that not all searches require physical access to the inside of a residence. Officers can use a few tricks to obtain a glance inside a resident’s home without ever taking one step past the threshold. Two strategies commonly used together are the “knock and talk” combined with “Plain View Doctrine”.

  • The “knock and talk” routine is just as it sounds – officers knock on the door and talk. Anybody may go to a resident’s door and knock. That is a perfectly community based notion that is not against the law for regular citizens and therefore, not against the law for police either. When police knock however, they are generally not just casually shooting the breeze while on the clock. Their visits are typically done to obtain information or clarify facts that may or may not incriminate someone. During these “knock and talks”, officer can chat, ask questions, or use the “Plain View Doctrine” to locate illegal contraband.

    Photo by: Mike Lewinski

  • The “Plain View Doctrine” does not give police permission to enter a person’s home and begin opening drawers and closets. It merely allows them to be in a spot where they are either invited to be or which would be common for a visitor. When in publicly acceptable area such as a front step or living room (if invited in), there they will use sight and other senses to lawfully observe around them for anything illegal such as drugs or evidence of a crime.

Exercising complete rights against unreasonable searches

Although it may come off as rude, it is perfectly acceptable to not open the door when someone comes a knocking, even if it is law enforcement. Residents have several options when police officers knock at the door: invite officers inside, speak from the open door, meet officers outside to talk, or even have a conversation through a closed door. While the latter option may sound discourteous, it can be done politely and with the utmost respect towards the attending officers. Anyone facing problems after trying to exercise their complete rights against unreasonable searches is encouraged to seek a reputable attorney for legal counsel.

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.

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.