On February 22, 2021, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided the Lewis v. State[i], which examines whether an officer can enter the curtilage of a residence and seize evidence that is in plain view without a search warrant. The facts of Lewis are as follows:
[T]he record shows that on the evening of March 23, 2016, David Gratton—an officer with the Savannah Police Department—was responding to a non-emergency call when he passed through his assigned precinct. While doing so, he observed Lewis (with whom he was familiar) sitting on the side porch of his home with money in hand and making motions as if weighing something on a scale. And based on those observations, Gratton believed Lewis was weighing and portioning drugs; so, he stopped his vehicle and got out to watch Lewis from the street before calling for backup.
When the backup officer arrived, Gratton called out to Lewis, who responded “oh shit” and stuffed what he had been weighing under the stairwell. Lewis then told the officers—who were standing on the other side of the chain-length fence surrounding his house—not to come onto the property.
Lewis walked toward the officers, demanded to speak to a supervisor, and engaged with backup while Gratton walked onto an abandoned property beside Lewis’s house. Standing on the other side of the chain-length fence separating Lewis’s property from the one next door, Gratton was mere feet away from where Lewis had been sitting on the side of his house. And on the side steps of Lewis’s house, Gratton could see a scale with marijuana residue and residue of a white powdery substance, which he believed to be cocaine. At this point, the supervisor that Lewis requested arrived on the scene. Then, with the approval of the supervisor, officers entered Lewis’s yard and retrieved the scales from the steps and multiple bags of drugs that had been pushed under the house when Lewis noticed the officers at the fence.[ii]
Lewis was arrested and filed a motion to suppress the evidence arguing that the officer unlawfully seized evidence from his property. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, and Lewis was convicted. He subsequently appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
Lewis’s first argument on appeal was that the officers viewed the contraband on his curtilage by going onto someone else’s property without permission. The court of appeals noted that the trial court found that the property from which the officers made their observations was “apparently abandoned.” The court reached this finding based on an officer’s testimony that the interior of that home was uninhabitable and dirty. He testified that he frequently patrols that property on foot to ensure there are no squatters or people using drugs at that location. Thus, the court of appeals held that the trial court did not err in concluding that the property was abandoned or that the officer had a right to be at that location.
Lewis’s second argument on appeal was that the trial court erred in determining that exigent circumstances authorized the officer’s warrantless entry onto his curtilage and seizure of the contraband.
The court of appeals first noted the legal principles applicable to this issue. The court discussed the “plain view doctrine” and stated
[N]ot only must the officer be lawfully located in a place from which the object can be plainly seen, [. . .], but he or she must also have “a lawful right of access to the object itself. Indeed, under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution police officers are “prohibited from entering a person’s home or its curtilage without a warrant absent consent or a showing of exigent circumstances. This is true even when items of contraband are visible within an officer’s plain view.[iii]
Thus, in order to seize contraband under the plain view doctrine, officers must have (1) a lawful vantage point from which they observe the contraband, and (2) lawful access to the contraband.
The trial court held that the officer’s lawful access to the contraband was based on the exigent circumstance of preventing the imminent destruction of the evidence. The court of appeals then discussed the law related to the “exigent circumstance” exception to the search warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The court stated
An “exigent circumstances” analysis requires a determination of “whether police had an objectively reasonable basis for fearing the imminent destruction of the evidence at issue during the time it took police to obtain a search warrant.” And the appropriate inquiry is whether “the facts, as they appeared at the moment of entry, would lead a reasonable, experienced officer to believe that evidence might be destroyed before a warrant could be secured.”[iv]
The court examined the evidence related to the “exigent circumstance” application in Lewis’s case. The court noted that the record showed that a crowd of onlookers developed and people from Lewis’s residence came outside and began interacting with the police. However, the court of appeals also noted the record regarding the officer’s testimony regarding his entry onto Lewis’s curtilage to seize the contraband. At the motion to suppress, the officer testified that he went onto Lewis’s curtilage and seized the drugs because his supervisor told him to do so since the drugs were in plain view. Further, when the officer was asked specifically why he did not obtain a search warrant, his response was, “Plain view.” Thus, the court noted there was no testimony in court that articulated that officers had a reasonable belief that evidence might be destroyed.
Additionally, officers testified that they had the residents of Lewis’s home detained outside for a short time in anticipation that they were going to obtain a search warrant for inside Lewis’s residence. The court noted that the ability of the police to control the residents also indicates that exigent circumstances were not present. Lastly, the court noted that there was no evidence to suggest that the police could not have secured the outside of Lewis’s residence and then obtained a search warrant to seize the contraband.
Therefore, the court of appeals held that the trial court erred in finding that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless entry onto Lewis’s curtilage to seize the drugs. As such, Lewis’s conviction was reversed.
Fourth Amendment violations are personal in nature and a person can only assert that his or her rights were violated. Here, even if the officers violated the rights of Lewis’s neighbor by walking on the neighbor’s property, Lewis could not assert that neighbor’s Fourth Amendment rights because he lacks “standing” to do so.
[i] A20A1704 (Ga. App. Decided February 22, 2021)
[ii] Id. at 1-3
[iii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 7 (emphasis added)