MN Supreme Court: Cops need warrant to search driveway

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court today further defined the areas of people’s property where police can’t search without a warrant.

It’s a fascinating case which goes to great lengths to define what area of someone’s property is protected by the Fourth Amendment and what area is fair game for a search by police without a warrant.

The “plain view doctrine” allows police to seize items that are in plain view, if they’re lawfully on an area protected by the Fourth Amendment.

The court ruled in the case of Quentin Todd Chute, who was convicted of receiving stolen property when the owner of a stolen camper and the police walked onto Chute’s Maplewood property in July 2011 to see if the camper had identifying bolts that proved it was the stolen camper.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in November 2016, saying the only license a police officer has when walking onto someone’s “curtilage” — defined as “the area around the home to which the activity of home life extends” — is to knock on the door, not to search.

Prosecutors took the case to the Supreme Court because they contend the camper was parked too far from Chute’s home to be in the area protected by the Fourth Amendment when it comes to warrantless searches.

In writing for the majority in today’s opinion, Justice Margaret Chutich said a U.S. Supreme Court-established test of what part of  a homeowner’s property  favors Fourth Amendment protection falls in Chute’s favor.

The part of Chute’s dirt driveway on which the trailer was parked is in close proximity to his suburban home. Aerial photos show that Chute does not live on a large piece of rural property; he lives in a single-family home in a Saint Paul suburb.

His dirt driveway runs directly next to the eastern side of the home and then forms a turnaround behind Chute’s home in the backyard. The backyard and driveway of a home are often considered to be within the curtilage of a home.

And Chutich said because the area of the driveway was frequently used by cars and Chute used the nearby garage to get into the house, and because the driveway is bordered by a fence on three sides, the cops needed a warrant.

Viewed objectively, the evidence demonstrates that the officer’s purpose for entering the curtilage was to conduct a search. Photographs in the record show that the camper was parked at the end of Chute’s driveway, past the house, in the back corner of Chute’s backyard.

To inspect the camper, the officer had to deviate substantially from the route that would take him to the back door of the house or to the garage. The officer walked directly to the camper, inspected it thoroughly, both inside and out, and only turned back toward the house when he was satisfied that the camper was stolen.

Anyone observing the officer’s actions objectively would conclude that his purpose was not to question the resident of the house, but to inspect the camper, “which is not what anyone would think he had license to do.”

At what point did the officer violate the homeowner’s constitutional rights? The moment at which he strayed from the normal path to the door from the street without meeting the homeowner, Chutich said.

But Justice Anne McKeig, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, said the driveway where the camper was found is not in a constitutionally protected part of the property because evidence suggests it was only used for parking or for cars to turn around.

She likened it to an “open field,” where police would not require a search warrant.

We have said that “the term ‘curtilage’ defies precise definition,” but whether an area is constitutionally protected ultimately comes down to whether the defendant possesses an “actual expectation of privacy” in the area that “society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.”

It is not sufficient to simply call an area a “backyard” or “driveway” and categorically presume that it is curtilage.

  • The Fourth Amendment really doesn’t get much love anymore, so this case seems like an interesting technical anomaly. While this sort of thing gets hashed out, the real elephant-in-the-room intrusion is in the wholesale collection of massive amounts of data, including cell phone conversations and metadata gathered without our knowledge or consent by the use of cell site simulators that mimic the real cell sites for the various carriers.

    License plate readers and face recognition cameras are proliferating everywhere, allowing the government to use algorithms to stitch the story of a person’s life together, all while skirting the Fourth Amendment.

    There is a perceived expectation of privacy, but the Fourth Amendment is barely on life support these days.

    • Mike

      Everything you say, but more. The Feds can and do engage in warrantless collection of all our electronic communications (see Section 702 of the FISA law). A bipartisan majority in Congress just renewed that once again in January.

      If the public cared half as much about the 4th Amendment as it does the 2nd, we’d be living in a different reality.

      • MikeB

        Half as much? I’d be ecstatic if it were 5%. We freely give away our rights in exchange for convenience.

    • chlost

      What is changing is our expectation of privacy. Does anyone reasonable assume that the data on their cellphones is private any more? Do we reasonably assume that there aren’t cameras with face recognition in every public area? I don’t think the Fourth Amendment will change, but its’ limitation to reasonable expectations will change how it is applied over time..

      • We should expect our common carrier communications to be covered by the Fourth. They are (sort of) but as I pointed out, the metadata can be harvested (illegally in my opinion, since these cell tower spoofers used by police departments transmit in order to trigger a response from our mobile phones, and NONE of them are licensed), so they have illegally probed our phones, no warrants, no nothing – just a giant fishing expedition, except that the fishnet can be carefully sorted by computers running pattern-searching algorithms. This can result in “evidence” around which a “crime” can be constructed, even when one was not obvious, making the entire process bass-ackwards. The law needs to catch up with technology.

    • Rob

      And FBI proxies, such as Geek Squad techs, looking for kiddie porn on customers’ computers

    • KTN

      Unrelated to this discussion: there is a great post at Volokh by Orin Kerr on cross enforcement of the 4th (can federal agents enforce state laws, and vice-versa.

      • Interesting. I’ve wondered how this is to be handled as well, having done law enforcement work myself.