On February 13, 2013, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Skoda [i], which provides an answer to the question of whether a person possesses a reasonable expectation of privacy on land belonging to his family. The facts of Skoda are as follows:
On February 22, 2011, Deputy Dennis Guthard was patrolling an area including a strip mall and commercial storage business near a home. In the area around the home, which he believed was vacant, Guthard recognized Steve Bargen’s van on a gravel drive leading down a hill to an open shed. Guthard had previously seen Bargen running power into one of the storage units. Bargen had refused to let Guthard check the serial numbers on the power equipment.
Guthard approached the van and noticed a Trailblazer beyond it. Bargen got out of the van, acting like he had been sleeping. Bargen said Skoda had called him (about car trouble) but had since walked off. Guthard saw items associated with meth production near the cars and called for backup. The police contacted Skoda’s father, who owned the property. He gave permission to search it. Seeing what looked like a pseudoephedrine pill and empty pseudoephedrine boxes in the Trailblazer, officers searched both vehicles. First, in Bargen’s van, they found items associated with meth production, including a jug of transchem muriatic acid. Then, in Skoda’s Trailblazer, they found similar items. [ii]
Skoda was charged with federal drug offenses, and he filed a motion to suppress. The district court denied the motion and he appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Skoda first argued that the evidence should be suppressed because the property where they were searched belonged to his father, and it was in a remote location. The court stated
The fact [the property] belonged to his father is irrelevant; defendants have no expectation of privacy in a parent’s home when they do not live there. [iii] [emphasis added]
The court cited to another Eighth Circuit case, the United States v. Beasley [iv], in which they held that a defendant had no reasonable expectation in a home where he did not live.
As to the remoteness of the area searched, the court noted that remoteness of an area searched to the home is a consideration when determining if an area falls within the constitutionally protected curtilage of the home; however, the remoteness of the home itself is not a consideration. [v] In other words, the fact that a home is located in a rural area is not a consideration.
Therefore, the court held that Skoda did not possess a reasonable expectation of privacy on his father’s property because he did not live at the property.
Next, Skoda argued that the police needed a search warrant to search his vehicle. However, the court noted that
Officers may search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband.” United States v. Coleman, 700 F.3d 329, 336 (8th Cir. 2012).[vi] [emphasis added]
The court further noted that probable cause exists when there is a “fair probability” that evidence of a crime is in the place to be searched.
The court then examined facts relevant to whether probable cause was present to justify the search of Skoda’s vehicle. Describing the facts relevant to probable cause, the court stated
It was late at night in a remote area and the suspiciousness of Bargen’s presence was compounded by his story about Skoda calling for help and then walking away. Implements of meth production lay near the cars, including a lithium battery shell casing, pliers, lithium strips, tinfoil, and a gas can with a plastic tube coming out of it. Police saw a red tablet that looked like pseudoephedrine in the car, along with a bag containing pseudoephedrine boxes on the floorboard. Further, the other implements of meth production found in Bargen’s van increased the probability that contraband or evidence of a crime was in Skoda’s Trailblazer.[vii] [internal citations omitted]
As such, the court held that the officers had sufficient probable cause to believe evidence of methamphetamine production would be found in Skoda’s vehicle.
Therefore, the court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress.
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] 705 F.3d 834 (8th Cir. 2013)
[iv] 688 F.3d 523 (8th Cir. 2012)
[v] Skoda, 705 F.3d at 834