Monday, July 2, 2018

Get off my curtilage!

We don't use the word "curtilage" in everyday conversation, but it has relevance to Fourth Amendment cases where someone tries to stop the prosecution from using evidence that the police obtained on your property without a warrant. This case shows us what it's all about.

The case is United States v. Alexander, decided on May 1. Defendant lives in Staten Island, where a narrow driveway running perpendicular to the street runs behind the house, leading to a shed. In the middle of the night one day, the police approached defendant and some compatriots and saw some guys hide drugs inside a parked vehicle. Defendant then walked down his driveway with a bottle of liquor, picking up a bag from the ground along the way. But when he returned to the front of the house, defendant was carrying neither. A police officer decided to trek over to where defendant had gone, into the backyard, where found the bottle and that bag, which contained two illegal guns. He got 51 months in jail for those guns.

The Court of Appeals cuts defendant a break, finding that the police entered the curtilage of defendant's property without a warrant, violating the Fourth Amendment. The curtilage is the "area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends," therefore making that part of the property part of your home and therefore protected under the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. In contrast, private property that exgtends outside a home's curtilage -- what the courts call the "open field" -- is fair game for the police and falls outside the Fourth Amendment's protections.

Ruling in defendant's favor, Judge Lynch runs through the four-factor test governing when we got some curtilage: (1) the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home, (2) whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home; (3) the nature of the uses to which the area is put; and (4) the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by. What this means is that while your home may be your castle, parts of your property are not. These are the Dunn factors, and next time you host a family barbeque ask everyone which part of the property is protected under the Fourth Amendment. For defendant, the shed area is curtilage, and the Court of Appeals holds, because that area was a few steps from his back door, he used that area for recreation (like barbeques). The fourth factor cuts against defendant's case because nothing prevented the public from viewing that area from the sidewalk in front of the property. That proximity factor really helps defendant in this case, the Court says. While the government says the area in question was visible from the street, the evidence that was seized was not.

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