In a recent case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police went well beyond what is permissible under Constitutional search and seizure law and trespassed upon a person’s property in order to investigate a complaint relating to growing marijuana. In this case, the police received an anonymous tip that the suspect was growing marijuana at his house. When the police arrived at the house to investigate, they saw that the house was completely surrounded by a tall fence and some bushes. As a result, the police were unable to see the house from public property. Therefore, the police could not observe any criminal activity that would corroborate their anonymous tip or even the house itself.
Generally, the police are not allowed to search a person’s home or go through a private gate onto a person’s property without a valid search warrant or consent to search the premises. In this case, the anonymous tip without any corroborating evidence was not sufficient to allow the police to get a search warrant. Not to be deterred however, when the suspect opened the gate to leave his property, the police officers slipped inside the gate and blocked the suspect from leaving. The police asked the suspect to sign a consent to search form, and, knowing he had a lot of marijuana plants inside his house, he refused. After some period of time, the suspect did open his door and allow the police inside. Once inside, the police found over 100 marijuana plants and arrested the suspect for cultivation of marijuana.
This was clearly an illegal search. The anonymous tip that was not corroborated by specific observations of the police officers was not enough for the police to obtain a warrant. If the police do not have a search warrant, they are not permitted to go onto a person’s private property through a gate clearly meant to keep people out and maintain the homeowner’s privacy. That is a trespass. If the police trespass to get on the person’s property, the property owner’s subsequent consent for the police to search is tainted and likely will not hold up in court.
Keep in mind that the police can walk onto a person’s property without a search warrant to knock on the door and ask questions of a homeowner, including a request to search the premises. This is permissible for most houses that are not surrounded by a fence clearly designed to keep people off of the property. However, if a person has set up his/her property so that it is necessary to go through a locked gate to enter the premises, the police are likely going to need a search warrant or consent to go through that gate.