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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > August 2012 > U.S. v. Robbins — Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, No

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U.S. v. Robbins — Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota), June 29, 2012

Question: If an officer enters the fenced-in, intimate area of a home to perform a public safety check and instead uncovers drug activity, will the drug evidence be suppressed?

Quick answer: No, as long as the intrusion onto the property is limited, is done for a legitimate purpose, and isn’t done with the intent of uncovering criminal activity.

Facts: A police dispatcher received a 911 hang-up call. Dispatch requested that officers in the area conduct a safety check at the address. Two officers tried to locate the address associated with the telephone number, but they had difficulty locating the home. They finally found a house near the address they were given. It was 10 p.m., and because there were so many lights on in the house, the officers believed someone was home. They walked up through a large, open wooden gate that led to a breezeway connecting the garage to the living quarters of the home. The officers walked up to the front porch of the house and knocked on the front door. No one answered, so they walked around the perimeter of the house to see if anyone was home. The officers eventually made their way back to the front door to knock again. At that point, they smelled an odor of marijuana coming through the crack of the door. A drug detection dog was called to the scene, and it alerted to the presence of drugs in the home. The officers then obtained a search warrant and discovered a large marijuana grow operation inside the house. Defendant Terry Robbins owned the home and was charged with federal drug crimes.
Why this case is important: “Curtilage” is legalese for the intimate area of a property that generally is off limits for police. So, while you can stand on a sidewalk and peer into a person’s house without a warrant, you cannot sneak up under the eaves and press your nose to the glass. However, when a legitimate law enforcement purpose exists, a warrantless entry onto the curtilage of a home is reasonable as long as the intrusion is limited. Here, police acted with a legitimate purpose because they were performing a safety check from a 911 hang-up that they thought came from Robbins’ home. The officers approached the house using the normal access route that any visitor would use, and police entry through an unlocked gate for a “knock and talk” is a reasonable, limited intrusion.
Plus, when officers are conducting legitimate law enforcement business and develop a reasonable belief that someone is present in a home, they are allowed to proceed to another entrance if knocking at the front door was unsuccessful. Here, the officers walked around the home’s perimeter only because so many lights were on inside, making the officers think they might be able to locate another entrance or find an occupant.

Keep in mind: If you have a legitimate law enforcement purpose, you may make a minimal, limited intrusion onto a home’s curtilage. A minimal intrusion includes knocking on the front door or looking in the windows. You also may conduct a quick search of the home’s perimeter, including the front yard, back yard, front porch, and driveway. But because curtilage gets Fourth Amendment protections, you’ll need a warrant if you want to enter for the purposes of a search against the home’s owner.
Click here to read the entire opinion.