On September 20, 2022, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided Jones v. State[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to plain view and the seizure of evidence from the curtilage of a residence. The relevant facts of Jones are as follows:
[O]n the night of April 7, 2015, Appellant and his girlfriend, Jamila Rena Allen, drove to the Dogwood Terrace apartment complex in Augusta in Allen’s white Chevrolet Suburban for Appellant to look for his missing cell phone. When they arrived, Appellant parked the car in front of the apartment complex and got out of the vehicle, but Allen stayed in the front passenger seat and played games on her phone.
Shiesha Thurman and Renee Young were standing outside the apartment complex that night, and they observed Appellant and Allen drive up in a “white long car.” Thurman testified that Appellant walked over in front of the apartments and started “flipping out about a cell phone,” asking “where the F his stuff was and somebody better come up with his stuff.” Thurman and Young then watched as Appellant got a shotgun from inside the Suburban and started “shooting crazy.” Young dropped to the ground. Thurman overheard the victim John Lee Jones (“John Lee”), who was standing nearby, tell Appellant that “nobody didn’t have his phone,” but Appellant still kept shooting “every way.” John Lee was struck during the shooting. According to Thurman, “the buckshots caught him, and it was too late before he could duck to miss the buckshots.” Several vehicles parked along the roadway were also struck, including Young’s 2010 Mazda 5.
After the shooting, Appellant jumped back into the Suburban with Allen and told her to drive off because “they were shooting.” Allen testified that she panicked and drove directly to the house she shared with Appellant and her children located at 3419 Chadbourne Street. Appellant left the residence soon afterwards in Allen’s Suburban, but Allen did not know where he went.
Shortly before midnight, officers with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the Dogwood Terrace apartment complex and learned that John Lee had been transported by a private vehicle to the hospital, where he later died from his injuries. Officers located three shotgun shells in the fire lane in front of the apartment complex, and they also observed several parked cars that had been struck by buckshot. The firearms examiner testified that the three shotgun shells were fired from the same firearm, a 12-gauge shotgun. He also testified that the buckshot pellets he obtained from the medical examiner were consistent with lead buckshot from a shotgun.
That night, Investigator Shea Yates spoke to Thurman and Young separately in an apartment located close to the scene, and the women gave separate accounts of what occurred and provided descriptions of the shooter. Based on their descriptions, Investigator Yates went back to the station and put together a photo lineup of six men. He then returned to Dogwood Terrace and showed the lineup to Thurman and Young individually. Both women selected Appellant’s picture from the lineup as the man who shot John Lee earlier that night. The women also identified Appellant as the shooter at trial.
Based on Thurman’s and Young’s identifications, Investigator Yates obtained an arrest warrant for Appellant on April 8 at 3:35 a.m. After conducting a database search for Appellant’s current residential address and obtaining the motor vehicle registration for Allen’s Suburban, Investigator Yates learned that Appellant resided with Allen at 3419 Chadbourne Street. At 6:23 a.m., Investigator Yates and other officers went to 3419 Chadbourne Street to look for Appellant. According to Investigator Yates, the officers first attempted to get an answer at the front door, but no one responded. The officers then went around to the back of the house through a low, gated chain link fence. The officers did not get an answer when they knocked on the back door of the house.
Investigator Yates testified that as the officers went around to the back door of the residence, they noticed a shotgun shell laying in the grass in the back yard. The officers photographed the shotgun shell and then sealed it into evidence packaging to be turned over to the GBI for processing. When the firearms examiner later compared the shotgun shell from the back yard of 3419 Chadbourne Street to the shells found at the scene of the shooting, he determined that they were fired from the same 12-gauge shotgun.
Around 8:00 p.m. on April 8, Allen spoke by telephone to officers with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, and she gave them permission to search 3419 Chadbourne Street that evening. At the time, Allen did not tell the officers that she was with Appellant the previous night at the Dogwood Terrace apartment complex. The officers did not locate Appellant during their subsequent search of the residence.
Over the next few months, officers continued searching for Appellant, including obtaining search warrants for his cell phone records, following leads from confidential informants, and using the assistance of neighboring sheriff’s offices. After receiving a tip as to Appellant’s whereabouts, officers located Appellant on July 2, 2015, at an abandoned house in the Richmond Hill area, where he was arrested and taken into custody.[ii]
Jones filed a motion to suppress the shotgun shell seized from his backyard and the trial court denied the motion. He was subsequently convicted and filed a motion for a new trial, based in part, on the denial of his motion to suppress. The court denied the motion.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Georgia examined the case on several issues. The issue this article will discuss is whether the detectives violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered Jones’ backyard and then seized a shotgun shell without a search warrant.
The Court then noted several legal principles relevant to the issue at hand. The principles are as follows:
- An arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within,” and this authority includes the right to enter the back yard or the woods behind the suspect’s residence. Brannan v. State, 275 Ga. 70, 73 (2) (b) (561 SE2d 414) (2002) (quoting Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 603 (IV) (100 SCt 1371, 63 LE2d 639) (1980)).[iii]
- [When] arresting officers had obtained a warrant for appellant’s arrest and he was living at his mother’s home, the arrest warrant authorized the officers’ entry onto the mother’s property to make the arrest. Geiger v. State, 295 Ga. 190, 192 (2) (758 SE2d 808) (2014)[iv]
- The Fourth Amendment [to the United States Constitution] proscribes all unreasonable searches and seizures, and searches conducted without prior judicial approval are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Teal v. State, 282 Ga. 319, 322-323 (2) (647 SE2d 15) (2007).[v]
- One such exception is the plain-view exception. See George v. State, 312 Ga. 801, 804-805 (865 SE2d 127) (2021) (citing Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136-137 (II) (110 SCt 2301, 110 LE2d 112) (1990)). In Horton, the United States Supreme Court established the plain-view exception to the Fourth Amendment‘s warrant requirement and explained that “an essential predicate to any valid warrantless seizure of incriminating evidence” is that “not only must the item be in plain view,” but also “its incriminating character must also be immediately apparent” and the officer “must have a lawful right of access to the object itself.” Horton, 496 U.S. at 136-137 (II).[vi]
- For evidence to be admissible under that doctrine, the officer collecting the evidence must not have violated the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which he or she sees the evidence. Moreover, the incriminating nature of the object must be immediately apparent. This requirement means that the officer must have probable cause to believe that the item in question is evidence of a crime or is contraband. George, 312 Ga. at 805 (citations and punctuation omitted).[vii]
- Additionally, “[f]or the plain-view exception to apply, the item in question must be clearly visible, and the officer may not manipulate or disturb it in order to acquire probable cause to believe the item is evidence of a crime. Id.[viii]
Thus, in light of the above rules, the government must show that (1) the detectives were in a place they were lawfully allowed to be when they viewed the shotgun shell, and (2) that the nature of the shotgun shell as evidence was immediately apparent.
The Court then examined the evidence in Jones’ case in light of the above legal principles. First, the court noted that the detectives were in a place they were lawfully allowed to be when they observed the shotgun shell. Particularly, the detectives were executing an arrest warrant that was based on probable cause at Jones’s residence. They went to his front door, and after receiving no response, went through a gate, through the backyard, to the backdoor. As noted in the legal principles above, a valid arrest warrant authorizes officers enter a suspect’s dwelling when there is a reasonable belief he is present, and this authority also authorizes officers to enter a suspect’s backyard and woods. Therefore, the detectives were lawfully in Jones’s backyard and the first requirement of the plain view exception to the search warrant requirement was met.
Second, the court noted that a detective testified that as they walked through the backyard toward the backdoor, they saw a shotgun shell lying in the grass. The shotgun shell was immediately apparent to be evidence because (1) a shotgun was used to kill the victim, (2) vehicles were struck by buckshot during the shooting, (3) three empty 12-guage shotgun shells were found at the scene of the shooting, and (4) the detectives were attempting to execute an arrest warrant for Jones for the shooting. Based upon the above, the Court held the second requirement of the plain view exception to the search warrant requirement was met.
Thus, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that the trial court did not err in denying the motion to suppress and allowing the shotgun shell found in Jones’s backyard to be admitted at trial.
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] S22A0548 (Ga. Decided September 20, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 1-5
[iii] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 10 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. (emphasis added)
[viii] Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added)