Minnesota Supreme Court – common area is not curtilage

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. To search and seize private property, law enforcement must have a warrant, or the circumstances must qualify as an exception to the warrant requirement. See State v. Licari, 659 N.W.2d 243, 250 (Minn. 2003). Evidence that is in plain view of an officer legitimately in a particular area is one exception that allows for seizure of the evidence without the necessity of a warrant. See State v. Zanter, 535 N.W.2d 624 (Minn. 1995).

The curtilage of a residence is the area so immediately and intimately connected with the home that, within it, the resident’s reasonable expectation of privacy should be respected.  Garza v. State, 632 N.W.2d 633 (Minn. 2001).  Law enforcement may not search or seize property from curtilage absent a warrant or circumstances that constitute an exception to the warrant requirement.  Id.

On September 19, 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court released an opinion applying the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement of a warrant for police search and seizure of private property. State v. Milton, A11-0809 (Minn. 2012).  The circumstances involved the seizure of shell casings from steps outside a duplex where the appellant resided.  The officer was securing the back of the property, and noticed shell casings on the steps.  Notably, the officer remained on steps that were shared between the appellant and his downstairs neighbors when the officer viewed the evidence.  

The Minnesota Supreme Court found that, due to the common nature of the steps where the officer was located when she viewed the evidence, the steps were not curtilage. Therefore the officer was legitimately present on the steps when she viewed the shell casings even though she did not have a warrant. The Court next held that the incriminating nature of the shell casings was readily apparent.  As a result, the shell casings were legitimately obtained by law enforcement pursuant to the plan view exception to the warrant requirement, and were properly admitted into evidence in the appellant’s murder trial.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8091814@N08/589776011/)