South-Western Legal Studies in Business

Police May Search Property without Warrant When Circumstances Justify
Description

Appeals court held that evidence was not improperly obtained when police searched the outside grounds around a residence when they were concerned about the location of a woman. Evidence found related to another matter could be used in prosecution.

Topic Criminal Law
Key Words

Search and Seizure; Fourth Amendment; Warrantless Entry; Privacy

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

Police received a 911 call, but the caller hung up. Officers were sent to check on the welfare of the occupants of the house. It was on five acres that included a barn and pond. The property was surrounded by a fence. As the gate to the property was open, the officers drove up to the house. As they approached the house, Taylor came to the officers from the barn. He said the call had been made because he and his girlfriend had a fight. Asked where she was, he said "she could be in a couple of different places." Taylor said he had gone to the barn to cool off after the fight. Taylor said they could look around to find his girlfriend. An officer saw fresh footprints leading to the pond. An officer found a backpack in the edge of the pond that had a knife sticking out of the side. Picking up the pack, an officer found shotgun shells in a pocket. Concerned about the missing girlfriend, the officers put Taylor in the back of the patrol car and searched the property, finding a shotgun in the pond. The woman was fine, but Taylor was charged and convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The conviction was appealed, contending the evidence was improperly obtained.

Decision

Affirmed. Officers are allowed to approach a residence to speak to the inhabitants, just as any private citizen may, without probable cause or a warrant. The officers' actions here were justified under the Fourth Amendment "knock and talk" exception to warrant requirements. The officers had reason to believe there may be an emergency situation at the house. Their search of the area around the house without a warrant was proper as Taylor had been in the barn and was vague about the location of his girlfriend. Taylor had no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the pond as it is in the proximate area of the house and Taylor had clearly been there. The fence around the property did not create a constitutionally protected interest in all open areas on the property.

Citation

U.S. v. Taylor, ---F.3d--- (2006 WL 2128065, 11th Cir., 2006)

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