Officer Gets Qualified Immunity But Court Does Not Answer the Constitutional Question
In Carroll v. Carman [i] the United States Supreme Court reviewed a case where officers conducting an investigation knocked on the rear door of a home without ever having knocked on the front door. Ultimately, the officers were sued for violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Mr. and Mrs. Carmen for entering their backyard and rear deck without a warrant. While not answering whether it was proper under the Fourth Amendment for the officers to have entered the rear yard and deck, the Court decided that the law with respect to the officers’ conduct was not clearly established, thus the officers should have been granted qualified immunity in the trail court.
On July 3, 2009, the Pennsylvania State Police Department received a report that a man named Michael Zita had stolen a car and two loaded handguns. The report also said that Zita might have fled to the home of Andrew and Karen Carman. The department sent Officers Jeremy Carroll and Brian Roberts to the Carmans’ home to investigate. Neither officer had been to the home before.
The officers arrived in separate patrol cars around 2:30 p.m. The Carmans’ house sat on a corner lot—the front of the house faced a main street while the left (as viewed from the front) faced a side street. The officers initially drove to the front of the house, but after discovering that parking was not available there, turned right onto the side street. As they did so, they saw several cars parked side- by-side in a gravel parking area on the left side of the Carmans’ property. The officers parked in the “first avail- able spot,” at “the far rear of the property.”
The officers exited their patrol cars. As they looked toward the house, the officers saw a small structure (either a carport or a shed) with its door open and a light on. Thinking someone might be inside, Officer Carroll walked over, “poked [his] head” in, and said “Pennsylvania State Police.” No one was there, however, so the officers continued walking toward the house. As they approached, they saw a sliding glass door that opened onto a ground-level deck. Carroll thought the sliding glass door “looked like a customary entryway,” so he and Officer Roberts decided to knock on it.
As the officers stepped onto the deck, a man came out of the house and “belligerent[ly] and aggressively approached” them. The officers identified themselves, explained they were looking for Michael Zita, and asked the man for his name. The man refused to answer. Instead, he turned away from the officers and appeared to reach for his waist. Carroll grabbed the man’s right arm to make sure he was not reaching for a weapon. The man twisted away from Carroll, lost his balance, and fell into the yard.
At that point, a woman came out of the house and asked what was happening. The officers again explained that they were looking for Zita. The woman then identified herself as Karen Carman, identified the man as her hus- band, Andrew Carman, and told the officers that Zita was not there. In response, the officers asked for permission to search the house for Zita. Karen Carman consented, and everyone went inside.
The officers searched the house, but did not find Zita. They then left. The Carmans were not charged with any crimes.
The Carmans later sued Officer Carroll in Federal District Court under 42 U. S. C. §1983. Among other things, they alleged that Carroll unlawfully entered their property in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he went into their backyard and onto their deck without a warrant.
At trial, Carroll argued that his entry was lawful under the “knock and talk” exception to the warrant requirement. That exception, he contended, allows officers to knock on someone’s door, so long as they stay “on those portions of [the] property that the general public is allowed to go on.” The Carmans responded that a normal visitor would have gone to their front door, rather than into their backyard or onto their deck. Thus, they argued, the “knock and talk” exception did not apply.
The Court did not decide whether or not the entry in this case was proper but found for the officers on qualified immunity grounds holding that the law was not clearly established, thus a reasonable officer may believe that it was proper to make such an entry. The Court expressly refused to decide whether “knock and talks” were limited to the front door or in the alternative had to start at the front door.
Note: The Supreme Court cited a number of U.S. Circuit Court opinions where the courts looked at things like the path an officer took to get to the door; whether the door appeared to be the common entry way that others may use and any other facts that would indicate that the officer was following the same path that other members of the public would follow in going to the door of a house.
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] Carroll v. Carman, 574 U.S.___; (slip opinion No. 14-212 per curiam 2014).