MN Appeals court: Stolen property search went too far

You see the camper that was stolen from you a few months ago next to a home on County Road D in Maplewood. You call the police and when the officer pulls up, you and he walk to the camper and see that a repair job you made with a unique set of bolts identifies it as yours. The officer goes in the camper and finds some of your property.

Then, when the property owner appears, the officer searches the garage with the homeowner’s consent and finds more of your property after the owner says he was storing the stolen camper for a friend.

Is this search and subsequent arrest of the homeowner legal?

No, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled today, throwing out the receiving stolen property conviction of Quentin Todd Chute.

The court overturned a lower court ruling that the initial search of the camper was permissible under the so-called “plain-view doctrine”, which allows police to search without a warrant if (1) the object’s incriminating nature is immediately apparent; (2) the police are legitimately in the position from which they view the object; and (3) the police have a lawful right of access to the object. In other words, by standing on County Road D, could the officer have determined the camper was stolen?

Edward J. Clearly, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, ruled that until the officer and the camper’s owner walked onto the property to determine whether a unique repair job was visible, it was impossible to identify the camper.

And, Cleary ruled, the officer shouldn’t have even been on the driveway to view the camper.

“Like private citizens, an officer without a warrant has an implied license to enter the curtilage (land around a home) for the purpose of knocking on the home’s door,” Cleary wrote in his ruling on behalf of a three-judge panel. “However, police do not have a license to enter the curtilage where ‘their behavior objectively reveals a purpose to conduct a search.’ If the police enter the curtilage for the purpose of conducting a warrantless search, that search violates the Fourth Amendment.”

The district court found that appellant’s property contained two driveways. One driveway was at least partially asphalt and led to a garage, while the other was dirt and appeared to be used by cars carrying persons to the backdoor entrance to appellant’s house and garage. After B.W.F. pointed to the camper from a spot on County Road D at the end of the driveway, the officer parked his squad some way into the dirt driveway.

Rather than immediately approaching the front entrance of appellant’s house, the officer chose to walk with B.W.F. (the camper’s rightful owner) down the dirt driveway toward the camper. This choice suggests that the officer entered appellant’s property for the purpose of conducting a search.

The officer also performed several acts to identify the camper as B.W.F.’s stolen property before attempting to contact appellant.

After arriving at a spot on the driveway next to the camper, the officer determined that the license plate had been removed. He checked the front of the camper, noted that the VIN was removed, and called the camper manufacturer to determine if the VIN might be stamped in another location. The officer learned that a partial VIN was stamped on the metal frame and located it.

The officer went into the camper and found an item of personal property belonging to B.W.F. The officer then heard a noise coming from the garage, walked to the garage door, and knocked.

The officer testified, “Once I verified it was the stolen camper, [I] tried to make contact with the homeowner.” The officer’s behavior in inspecting and entering the camper before seeking the property owner objectively reveals that he entered appellant’s property to conduct a warrantless search.

Because the officer entered the dirt driveway for an improper purpose, his presence there was not lawful and the plain-view exception does not apply.

The officer’s search of the camper violated the Fourth Amendment.