On July 11, 2013, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Bausby [i] which serves as an excellent review of the legal concept of curtilage and how it pertains to the Fourth Amendment. The facts of Bausbyare as follows:
One June day, Eric Haase was driving home from work when he passed by Chris Bausby’s residence in Kansas City, Missouri. Haase noticed a motorcycle inside the chain-link fenced front yard of the residence that resembled a motorcycle stolen from him some months earlier. The motorcycle had a “For Sale” sign next to it, bearing a phone number. Haase called the police and waited near the Bausby residence for officers to arrive.
Officers Cole Massey and Shawn Oden of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department (KCPD) were dispatched to the Bausby residence. After they arrived, Haase pointed out the motorcycle he believed to be his. Haase explained that the motorcycle appeared to have alterations he had made, and he provided the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for his stolen motorcycle. The officers entered the front yard of Bausby’s residence through an unlocked, unchained gate in the chain-link fence. The chain-link fence had at least one “Beware of Dog” sign, but there was no dog in the front yard at the time. The fence did not bear a “No Trespassing” sign.
The Honorable Greg Kays, United States District Judge for the Western2 District of Missouri, adopting the report and recommendations of the Honorable John T. Maughmer, United States Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Missouri.
The front door of the residence was only accessible after entering the fenced-in front yard. The officers knocked on the front door of the residence, but no one answered.
The officers then checked the VIN number on the motorcycle in the yard, confirming that it matched the VIN number Haase had provided to them and confirming with a dispatch officer that it matched the VIN number Haase had reported two months earlier to police. The officers then observed several automobiles in an unfenced driveway shared with a neighboring residence. Some of the automobiles had missing VIN numbers. An Oldsmobile Alero that was in the shared driveway and still had a VIN number had also been reported stolen.
Officers Massey and Oden contacted the property crimes division of the KCPD. Sergeant Brad Lemon and Detective John Straubel of the Metro Property Crimes Task Force were dispatched to the Bausby residence. In preparation for obtaining a search warrant, Sergeant Lemon instructed the officers at the scene to secure the residence and not allow anyone to enter the property. After Detective Straubel talked with other officers at the scene, made independent observations, and obtained a legal description of the property, he returned to the police station to prepare an affidavit and apply for a search warrant.
Bausby later arrived at his residence. When he identified himself, officers took him into custody on an outstanding warrant. After being placed in custody but before being removed from the scene, Bausby told officers he had paperwork that would prove his ownership of all the vehicles at his residence. Officers refused to allow Bausby to enter his residence or his tow truck to collect the paperwork. Bausby testified, however, that a female witness retrieved some of the paperwork but that officers refused Bausby’s request that officers examine the paperwork. Detective Straubel testified that he was unaware that Bausby had attempted to provide the paperwork to the officers at the scene.
A Missouri state judge issued a search warrant for Bausby’s residence. During the ensuing search, officers found a 12-gauge shotgun in the residence. A federal grand jury indicted Bausby for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).
Bausby filed a motion to suppress the firearm and the district court denied the motion. He pled guilty with the right to appeal. He then filed a timely appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
One of the issues before the court was whether the area of the yard where the motorcycle was parked was within the curtilage of the home such that the officer’s warrantless entry into that area violated the Fourth Amendment.
The court first examined the relevant rules that pertain to this issue. First, the court noted:
[T]he area immediately surrounding and associated with the home – what our cases call curtilage – [is regarded] as part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. (quoting Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 180 (1984))
Second, the court noted that in the United States v. Dunn [ii], the United States Supreme Court listed four factors to consider when making a determination of whether an area is to be considered curtilage. The four factors are as follows:
 the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home,  whether the areas is included within an enclosure surrounding the home,  the nature of the uses to which the area is put, and  the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by. [iii]
The court noted that no one factor is dispositive, but rather the circumstances must be viewed as a whole.
When applying the factors to Bausby’s case, the court first noted that the motorcycle was relatively close to the house and was within a chain link fence. However, the other factors weighed heavily against the area being considered curtilage. Particularly, the nature of the use of that area of the yard was to sell a motorcycle. This meant that Bausby was actually drawing attention to this area of his yard, rather than trying to protect it from the view of passers-by. Further, the court noted that the fence used was only a 4 or 5 foot chain link fence and was not the type used to limit the observation of the yard.
The court then held:
Considering the Dunn factors in total, the district court did not err when it determined that the front yard of Bausby’s residence where he displayed Hasse’s stolen motorcycle was outside the curtilage of the home, and therefore the officers could enter that area to observe the motorcycle and its VIN number more closely without violating Bausby’s Fourth Amendment rights. [iv]
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress regard the Fourth Amendment issue.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 12-3212 (8th Cir. 2013)
[ii] 480 U.S. 294 (1987)
[iii] Dunn, 480 U.S. at 301
[iv] Bausby at 6