MN Supreme Court: Cops need warrant to search driveway

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court today further defined the areas of people’s property where police can’t search without a warrant.

It’s a fascinating case which goes to great lengths to define what area of someone’s property is protected by the Fourth Amendment and what area is fair game for a search by police without a warrant.

The “plain view doctrine” allows police to seize items that are in plain view, if they’re lawfully on an area protected by the Fourth Amendment.

The court ruled in the case of Quentin Todd Chute, who was convicted of receiving stolen property when the owner of a stolen camper and the police walked onto Chute’s Maplewood property in July 2011 to see if the camper had identifying bolts that proved it was the stolen camper.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in November 2016, saying the only license a police officer has when walking onto someone’s “curtilage” — defined as “the area around the home to which the activity of home life extends” — is to knock on the door, not to search.

Prosecutors took the case to the Supreme Court because they contend the camper was parked too far from Chute’s home to be in the area protected by the Fourth Amendment when it comes to warrantless searches.

In writing for the majority in today’s opinion, Justice Margaret Chutich said a U.S. Supreme Court-established test of what part of  a homeowner’s property  favors Fourth Amendment protection falls in Chute’s favor.

The part of Chute’s dirt driveway on which the trailer was parked is in close proximity to his suburban home. Aerial photos show that Chute does not live on a large piece of rural property; he lives in a single-family home in a Saint Paul suburb.

His dirt driveway runs directly next to the eastern side of the home and then forms a turnaround behind Chute’s home in the backyard. The backyard and driveway of a home are often considered to be within the curtilage of a home.

And Chutich said because the area of the driveway was frequently used by cars and Chute used the nearby garage to get into the house, and because the driveway is bordered by a fence on three sides, the cops needed a warrant.

Viewed objectively, the evidence demonstrates that the officer’s purpose for entering the curtilage was to conduct a search. Photographs in the record show that the camper was parked at the end of Chute’s driveway, past the house, in the back corner of Chute’s backyard.

To inspect the camper, the officer had to deviate substantially from the route that would take him to the back door of the house or to the garage. The officer walked directly to the camper, inspected it thoroughly, both inside and out, and only turned back toward the house when he was satisfied that the camper was stolen.

Anyone observing the officer’s actions objectively would conclude that his purpose was not to question the resident of the house, but to inspect the camper, “which is not what anyone would think he had license to do.”

At what point did the officer violate the homeowner’s constitutional rights? The moment at which he strayed from the normal path to the door from the street without meeting the homeowner, Chutich said.

But Justice Anne McKeig, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, said the driveway where the camper was found is not in a constitutionally protected part of the property because evidence suggests it was only used for parking or for cars to turn around.

She likened it to an “open field,” where police would not require a search warrant.

We have said that “the term ‘curtilage’ defies precise definition,” but whether an area is constitutionally protected ultimately comes down to whether the defendant possesses an “actual expectation of privacy” in the area that “society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.”

It is not sufficient to simply call an area a “backyard” or “driveway” and categorically presume that it is curtilage.