We recently reviewed a drug case in the Jacksonville, Florida area with the following facts. The police received a general tip of illegal drug and other criminal activity occurring in the suspect’s home. That certainly was not a sufficient basis to obtain a search warrant so the police decided to go to the house, knock on the door and ask questions of the occupant(s). This house was in a rural area. The police arrived at the house, knocked on the front door and no one answered. The police officers were not deterred and decided to walk around the side of the house into the backyard and knock on the back door. While in the backyard, the police found marijuana. The owner of the house was subsequently arrested on possession of marijuana charges.
Was this a proper search of the defendant’s property and seizure of the marijuana? No. Police officers are permitted to approach someone’s home, knock on the front door and ask questions about possible drug or other illegal activity. However, if no one answers, the police cannot just violate a person’s right to privacy in his property by entering his backyard. A person’s 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is strongest in his/her home. Police officers cannot just enter a person’s home or backyard without specific evidence of illegal activity and a search warrant in most cases.
In this case, the criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the marijuana that was found in the defendant’s backyard. At the hearing, the police officers testified that it is common in rural areas for residents to accept visitors at their back door and the police officers had some reason to believe someone was inside the house. These two points are irrelevant. It really does not matter what the custom may be for receiving visitors in this area or that the police thought someone was home but just not answering the door. What does matter is that the defendant has a Constitutional right to privacy that protected him from the police entering his property without a search warrant beyond walking up to the front door to knock.
This case resulted in the judge throwing out the evidence of the marijuana and dismissing the drug charges.