Property Curtilage is Constitutionally Protected by the 4th Amendment
The 4th Amendment and Property Curtilage
Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals are protected from unreasonable searches of their homes and property, including the curtilage of their homes, in the absence of a search warrant or application of a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. Curtilage is the area immediately surrounding a dwelling, and it is considered to fall within the constitutionally protected area where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Key Supreme Court Ruling: United States V. Dunn
In United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987), the United States Supreme Court established four factors to determine whether an area of property qualified as curtilage. These factors are:
- (1) the proximity of the land to the home;
- (2) whether the area is included within enclosures surrounding the house;
- (3) the nature of the use to which the area is utilized; and
- (4) the steps taken by the resident to protect the land in question from observation by others
Other court decisions have concluded that certain areas surrounding a home qualify as curtilage, such as garages, driveways, fenced-in backyards, patios, adjoining decks, and more.
Case Study: Commonwealth v. Leslie
Legal challenges relating to the curtilage of a home have involved both single-family homes as well as multi-family homes or multi-unit properties.
For example, in the Massachusetts case of Commonwealth v. Leslie, 477 Mass. 48 (2017), the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) had to determine whether the side yard of a multi-family dwelling was within the curtilage of the home.
In that case, officers were parked in an unmarked police vehicle observing a neighborhood when they saw the defendant place an item under the side porch of a three-family home. Officers believed the item to be a firearm, so they opened the front gate and approached the dwelling. After approaching the side porch, officers located a shotgun visible only from the left side of the yard and in response, arrested the defendant.
The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, claiming it was only discovered and seized following the warrantless, physical intrusion into the curtilage of the property by the police officers. After applying the Dunn factors, the SJC held that the front porch and side yard of a multi-family dwelling falls within the constitutionally protected curtilage of the home.
The SJC specifically stated that:
- (1) the porch was physically connected to the home itself,
- (2) it was enclosed within a chain link fence,
- (3) it was used as an extension of the defendant’s home and
- (4) a large recycling bin was blocking the area from view of the street
Because police entered this protected area without a search warrant, their observations or and discovered firearm were suppressed from the case, resulting in victory for the defendant.
The Complexity of 4th Amendment Law
4th Amendment search and seizure law is very complex, and appears to always be evolving, as each case presents individual facts and circumstances. If you have questions or concerns about the search of your property by police, contact the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III, Inc. for a free consultation at (401) 351-5100.