Sunday, August 7, 2016

Curtilage By Any Other Name Is Constitutional

State v. Koenig, 2016 VT 65

By Amy Davis

This case focuses on a motion to suppress evidence that ultimately lead to a DUI conviction. State Police received a tip about some problem driving in Bethel. The caller gave the vehicle’s license plate number, which the police used to find the registered owner and her address. The trooper parked outside of the residence which consisted of a single-story structure and a garage-like structure open on one side and without doors, making the inside completely visible from the street.

The trooper saw the identified vehicle parked in the garage. He observed two entrances to the building—one on the left that he believed was the entrance to a business, and one on a shared wall, which he believed was the entrance to a residence. The trooper approached the entryway inside the garage area. As he approached the entrance, he observed the vehicle, and some damage to the front-left fender and driver’s side mirror.

Defendant opened the door and identified herself. After some field sobriety exercises and a breath test, the trooper arrested the Defendant on suspicion of DUI. Defendant was arraigned, requested a timely civil suspension hearing, and filed a motion to suppress in the civil and criminal cases, and a motion to dismiss in the civil case. 

The court granted the motion to dismiss and held a motion hearing on the suppression issue. Defendant argued that the trooper conducted an illegal, warrantless search within the curtilage of her home when he entered the garage-like structure in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution. The State’s opposition was that constitutional protections are not absolutely extended to curtilage. The trial court did not address this issue, and denied the motion to suppress. The SCOV reviews a motion to suppress denial deferentially and reverses only if the findings are clearly erroneous.

The first challenge is to the trial’s court finding that the attached structure was a carport. The SCOV notes that this isn’t so much a challenge to a finding of fact, but a challenge of the trial court’s terminology. The trial court calls it a carport, but the defendant claims it is a garage. The State says whatever it is called does not matter because the expectation of privacy does not extend to the structure anyway. The SCOV notes that the argument is reasonable, but still immaterial for Fourth Amendment and Article 11 purposes.

The second challenge, and more important, is whether the police officer unlawfully entered the curtilage of the home for a knock-and-talk. The Defendant assets that by approaching the residence through the carport-thingy, the trooper violated her expectation of privacy. The State says she had no reasonable expectation of privacy because you could see the interior from the street, and there were no signs or blockades that would limit someone’s access. We thus turn to the elusive “reasonable person,” and what he/she would think about the carport/garage/car stall/parking space.

After a brief reiteration of the basic principles surrounding the Fourth Amendment and Article 11, the SCOV notes that neither protection is absolute against government intrusion. The Fourth Amendment extends to items not in “plain view.” If the police are in a place where they have a legitimate right to be, and see illegal items, the Fourth Amendment does not protect those items. Article 11 only extends to areas where a person has conveyed an expectation of privacy in such a way that a reasonable person would conclude that the area would exclude the public. The government only conducts a search if it intrudes into areas a reasonable person would expect to be private.

If a police officer approaches a residence to knock on the door, or approaches to speak with the inhabitants, it is deemed a “knock-and-talk” and is an exception to the protection against warrantless searches. The police are limited to only the areas where the public would be expected to go. In the SCOV’s actual opinion, the SCOV backs this principle up with many citations and quotes from other cases, so you know it’s legit. Please enjoy our blog’s abridged version.

Unless a person has something posted meaning to exclude the public, such as a “No Trespassing” sign or a doormat that says, “Thank You, But We Don’t Want Girl Scout Cookies,” a police officer has implied permission to knock on the front door. You know what else would work here? An electric fence, a big meat-headed dog named Butch chained to the front door, or a sign displaying your fierce loyalty to the NRA. No vacuum salesmen or politicians would come to your house then, and you would enjoy a heightened expectation of privacy for Fourth Amendment and Article 11 purposes.

The SCOV concludes that all that was needed in this cases would be for a reasonable person to think the entryway to the left was a business, and the entryway inside the attached structure was the normal way to get to the house, and those facts were present. The entry on the left was along an illuminated, paved walkway with a sign for “Paini Monuments” at the end. The residential entrance was visible from the street. Although the trooper admitted he was not certain the entrance to the left was a business entrance, the SCOV concluded it was not unreasonable for him to conclude as much.

The SCOV concludes that in the case, the trooper’s conduct was reasonable and not violative of the Fourth Amendment or Article 11. The SCOV also notes that warrantless entry into an attached structure without doors is not always constitutional, but declines to fully address this point.

No comments:

Post a Comment