On April 10, 2014, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Chavez, which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to intrusion into curtilage to execute an arrest warrant.  The facts of Chavez, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

On April 27, 2011, Officer Brett Miller of the Taylorsville Police Department met with a confidential informant (“CI”). The CI told Miller he was “very familiar” with Chavez and knew there was a warrant for his arrest. He told Miller that Chavez was a member of the “Diamond Street” gang and went by the gang name “Wizard.” He also told Miller that Chavez had been living in a home located at 154 West Westwood Avenue in Salt Lake City (the “Westwood house”). The CI indicated the house was located on the north side of the street and had a “For Sale” sign in the front yard. He said the property was owned by one of Chavez’s family members but was vacant because it did not have running water. After meeting with the CI, Miller confirmed the existence of an outstanding arrest warrant for Chavez. The address in the warrant, however, was not the address of the Westwood house.

Shortly after midnight, Miller drove to the Westwood house, which he recognized by the “For Sale” sign in the yard. There was a car parked in the driveway but no lights were on inside the house. As Miller was driving away, he observed a vehicle arrive at the home and back into the driveway. Miller circled back and saw a female exiting the passenger seat of the vehicle. He did not see the driver, although the driver’s door was open. Miller ran the license plate and learned the car was registered to Jenny Lopez. The address of the Westwood house was the address on the registration. The background check Miller ran on Lopez revealed she had “some documentation”1 with a person named Christopher Gonzales. Miller also determined that Christopher Gonzales had previously resided in the Westwood house and was related to Chavez. He did not, however, determine who owned the Westwood house or whether the owner was related to Chavez.

Miller arranged for members of a Joint Criminal Apprehension Team (“JCAT”) to set up a containment area around the Westwood house. Detective Levi Hughes took up a position at the rear of the house, passing through an open gate in a fence that enclosed the backyard. Hughes looked into the interior of the home by peering through a gap in the blinds. He observed Chavez retrieve a handgun from under a sofa. JCAT officers repeatedly commanded Chavez to exit the home but he refused to comply. A search warrant was obtained from a state judge and members of the Salt Lake City Police Department introduced tear gas into the home. The female who Miller observed at the beginning of the stand-off exited the home and told officers Chavez was inside and armed with a firearm. Chavez eventually surrendered and was arrested. The home was searched and officers located the firearm.

Chavez was charged in a one-count indictment with being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

Chavez filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the search warrant and argued that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they breached the curtilage of his home without a warrant when Detective Hughes went into his back yard and looked through his blinds.  Chavez also argued that the arrest warrant did not authorize the officers to engage in that activity because they did not possess a reasonable belief that he lived at that residence and was home at the time they breached his curtilage.  The district court agreed with Chavez and granted the motion to suppress.  The government appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The issue before the court of appeals was whether the detective violated the Fourth Amendment, when pursuant to the arrest warrant for Chavez, he went to the back of the house and looked through the blinds into the residence.

The court first noted the rule from the United States Supreme Court in Payton v. New York regarding arrest warrants and entry into private premises.  The court stated:

In United States v. Gay, this court interpreted Payton as creating a two-part test to determine when officers are justified in entering a home based on an arrest warrant. 240 F.3d 1222, 1226 (10th Cir. 2001). The “officers must have a reasonable belief the arrestee (1) lived in the residence, and (2) is within the residence at the time of entry.” Id.   [emphasis added]

Regarding application of the above rule, the court stated that they must apply common sense to determine whether the police had (1) a reasonable belief the wanted person lived at the residence entered, and (2) a reasonable belief that the wanted person was present at the residence at the time of entry.  Specifically, the court stated:

We have previously cautioned that “courts must be sensitive to common sense factors indicating a resident’s presence.” Valdez v. McPheters, 172 F.3d 1220, 1226 (10th Cir. 1999) (quotation omitted). Officers are not required to actually view the suspect, but the circumstances must give them a reasonable belief the suspect is present in the home. Id. Relevant facts include, but are not limited to, the presence of an automobile, the time of day, and the operation of lights at night. Id.

The court of appeals then stated that they did not need to decide whether the officers had a reasonable belief that Chavez lived at that residence, because even if they did, the officers did not have a reasonable belief that Chavez was present in the residence at the time the detective entered the back yard area and looked through the blinds.  The court then held that, while the officers were at the residence at midnight, which is a time when most people are home, that hour of the day, by itself, is not sufficient to provide the reasonable belief needed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment.

In explaining their rationale, the court stated that, at the time of the intrusion into the curtilage, the officers did not see any visible indication that anyone was in the house.  Then, when the car arrived, it was not registered to Chavez and there was no indication that Chavez was driving the actual registered owner’s vehicle.  Further, the CI that provided the information about Chavez, did not provide any information as to what particular days or hours Chavez stayed at that residence.  As such, the court held that, at the time the detective went to the rear of the house, the officers did not have a reasonable belief that Chavez was present in the residence; therefore, the entry violated the Fourth Amendment.

The court then affirmed the grant 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.

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