On September 7, 2022, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided Peacock v. State[i], in which the Court had to decide whether it violated the Fourth Amendment when investigators searched Peacock’s truck pursuant to a search warrant of a residence when the truck was not specifically described in the search warrant and Peacock was not a resident of the premises that was the subject of the search warrant.

The incident that forms the basis of this case began on May 15, 2016, at 8:33 a.m., when Peacock called 911 to report his friends’ house was “fully engulfed” in fire and his friends were inside.  The fire department and investigators arrived at the residence.  After the fire was extinguished, it was determined that there were five people inside, all deceased from gunshot wounds to the head.  Two dead dogs were also located.  Additionally, facts relevant to the search of Peacock’s truck, taken directly from the case are as follows:

[Peacock consented to an officer searching his pickup truck, which he had driven to the house, for the purpose of looking for the Hardee’s bag and cigarettes. Investigator Murfin’s brief search corroborated that Peacock had Hardee’s biscuits and a new pack of cigarettes. A surveillance video recording showed that Peacock had ordered the biscuits at the Hardee’s around 8:15 a.m. Surveillance video recordings from the convenience store, however, showed that Peacock did not visit the store that morning, and Netflix records showed no activity that morning on the account that Edwards used. The Hardee’s surveillance video also showed that Peacock was wearing a green shirt with white writing when he stopped at the restaurant; he was wearing a blue-gray sleeveless shirt when he spoke to Investigator Murfin. When officers conducted a second, more thorough search of Peacock’s truck under a search warrant, they found a green shirt with white writing and khaki shorts stuffed behind a speaker at the back of the truck. The shirt and shorts were blood-stained, and DNA analysis revealed that blood on the shirt belonged to Croft and blood on the shorts belonged to Norman, Pidcock, and a non-human source. Another bloodstain on the shirt had DNA from at least three people, but the profile was too complex to identify them.[ii]

Additional relevant facts from the case that explain the search of Peacocks truck are as follows:

On the day of the fire, GBI Special Agent Bahan Rich procured a search warrant authorizing the search of “[t]he entire premises and curtilage to include vehicles located at 505 Rossman Dairy Road in Moultrie, Colquitt Co., GA, said premises is described as a single-story dwelling with extensive fire damage.” The proposed search sought evidence of arson, murder, and violations of Georgia’s Controlled Substances Act. The affidavit supporting the search warrant said, among other things, that Peacock “reported that last night several of the victims smoked marijuana from a pipe which belonged to one of the victims” and that “[v]ehicles believed to belong to said victims remain on scene and were damaged by the structural fire.” As part of the search conducted based on this warrant, Agent Seacrist searched Peacock’s truck and found Peacock’s green shirt and khaki shorts with bloodstains.

Before trial, Peacock moved to suppress the results of this search, arguing that there was not probable cause to support a search warrant for the truck and that the truck was not within the curtilage of the home. At the hearing on the motion, Investigator Murfin testified that when emergency personnel arrived at the home, Peacock’s truck had been parked in the home’s driveway, but emergency personnel moved the truck farther away from the home to allow them easier access to the home. The truck was at this location when the affidavit for the search warrant was written and when the search was conducted pursuant to the warrant. The investigator also testified that Peacock was free to leave the scene, but his truck was not.

During his hearing testimony, Investigator Murfin described the truck’s location as “at the edge of the pecan orchard” but still “in the yard” and within the crime scene tape that was used to secure the scene. An aerial photograph of the property showed that the home had an open dirt area in front of it, and that the open area amounted to only a portion of the property, which was 1.17 acres in total according to the tax record admitted into evidence. The rest of the property was covered in trees, and the home and open area were bordered on all four sides by trees, with an opening to access the main road and a field road. Investigator Murfin’s testimony and other photographs showed that Peacock’s truck was parked along the tree line on the right side of the open area (if facing toward the road), a short distance from the front of the home. Photographs showed that a fire truck and other vehicles, which Investigator Murfin described as belonging to investigators and first responders, were parked to the left and right of Peacock’s truck.[iii]

Peacock was ultimately arrested and charged with murder and other related offenses.  He filed a motion to suppress the clothes located in the second search of his truck pursuant to the search warrant for the residence.  The trial court denied his motion to suppress and the evidence was admitted at trial, where Peacock was convicted of murder.  He filed a motion for new trial, which was based, in part, on the denial of the motion to suppress.  The trial court denied the motion for a new trial.

Ultimately, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, on multiple issues.  The issue we will discuss is whether the search of Peacock’s truck, pursuant to a search warrant for the residence, violated the Fourth Amendment in light of the fact that (1) Peacock did not live at the residence, and (2) Peacock’s truck had be moved from the driveway by first responders prior to the search to make room for emergency vehicles.

On appeal, Peacock argued that the search warrant did not authorize a search of his truck because (1) the search warrant affidavit did not specifically authorize a search of his “green Chevrolet truck” and (2) it did not establish probable cause to believe any evidence of the listed crimes was located within his truck.

The Court first discussed whether a search of a vehicle located within the curtilage of a residence that was the subject of a search warrant was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  The court stated

[I]n McLeod v. State, 297 Ga. 99, 105 (772 SE2d 641) (2015), we held that a warrant that authorizes the search of a home also authorizes the search of “[v]ehicles parked within the curtilage of [the] dwelling,” regardless of whether the warrant specifies the particular vehicle or any connection between the vehicle and the crimes.[iv]

The Court explained that the warrant does not need to specify each specific vehicle because vehicles were considered to be like a container, desk, cabinet or any other item that could hold personal property.  Therefore, just as those items do not need to be specifically identified, neither do vehicles.

However, McCloud, cited above, involved the search of a vehicle owned by a resident of the premises listed in the search warrant.  Whereas, Peacock was not a resident of the premises listed in the search warrant under which his truck was searched.  Thus, the court set out to determine if rule from McCloud also applied to vehicles owned by visitors.

The Court first noted

Although a warrant to search a home generally authorizes searching personal effects and containers without separately identifying them, such a warrant does not authorize searching a visitor merely because he is found at the home when the warrant is executed. See Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 92 & n.4 (100 SCt 338, 62 LEd2d 238) (1979) (reasoning that this conclusion follows from the Fourth Amendment‘s prohibition against open-ended or general warrants).[v]

The Court examined precedent from various federal circuits and observed that that there was a split among the circuits on this issue.  The court stated

The better rule may be to require some greater connection than mere proximity to the home or crimes, because a warrant to search a home that also allows searching vehicles of casual visitors unconnected with the home or the basis for the search looks a lot like a forbidden general warrant. Cf. Ybarra, 444 U.S. at 92 & n.4. See also Wayne R. LaFave et al., Search & Seizure § 4.10 (c)[vi]

The court also cited a Court of Appeals of Georgia case in which that court held

[A] person’s “automobile cannot be searched merely because he is a visitor upon searched premises” but upholding the search of the defendant’s wife’s car there because there was “a sufficient ‘connection’ between [her] and the very drug-related criminal activities that existed on ‘the premises’ then being lawfully searched,” so she “was not a mere visitor or passerby whose privacy was invaded during the execution of the warrant.”  See Blount v. State, 181 Ga. App. 330, 335-336 (352 SE2d 220) (1986)[vii]

The Court noted that, in Peacock’s case, he was not a mere visitor to the premises.  Rather, he was closely connected to the residence that was the subject of the search warrant.  First, he was a former resident of the search location, and he was still a frequent guest of the residents.  Second, he had spent the night before the fire with the residents, drinking and smoking marijuana.  Third, he slept at the residence the night before the fire and allegedly left the residence shortly before the fire to get breakfast for the victims.  Fourth, the morning of the fire, he returned to the residence and parked in the driveway.  The Court then stated that the above facts closely connect Peacock and his truck to the residence and the crimes that were being investigated.

Therefore, the Court held, under the circumstances of Peacock’s case, the valid search warrant for the residence authorized a search of Peacock’s truck, if it was within the curtilage of the residence.

The Court then examined whether Peacock’s truck was within the curtilage of the residence.  The court first discussed the legal principles related to curtilage and stated

The curtilage of a home is “the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home.” Collins v. Virginia, 138 SCt 1663, 1670 (201 LE2d 9) (2018). A home’s curtilage has long been protected as “part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes” to preserve a person’s “right … to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (133 SCt 1409, 185 LE2d 495) (2013). . .

These reasons for treating the curtilage as part of the home help us identify the curtilage in a given case. The basic question is “whether the area harbors the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.” United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294, 301 (107 SCt 1134, 94 LE2d 326) (1987) (citation and punctuation omitted). Bearing on that question are factors like “proximity” of the area claimed as curtilage, whether that area is “within an enclosure surrounding the home,” the “nature of the uses to which the area is put,” and any “steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by.” Id. That said, the “conception defining the curtilage is … familiar enough that it is easily understood from our daily experience,” Jardines, 569 U.S. at 7, and “these factors are useful analytical tools only to the degree that, in any given case, they bear upon the centrally relevant consideration,” Dunn, 480 U.S. at 301.[viii]

The Court then applied the legal principles above to the facts of Peacock’s case.  First, although first responders moved his truck, it was moved to an area the investigator described as “the yard” in front of the residence.  The area was also described as “bordered along with the house by trees on all sides.”[ix]  Second, other first responders, including a fire truck, parked in the same area where the truck was parked.  These were first responders that responded to the house fire.  The court stated “that area was ‘immediately surrounding’ the house in the same apparent proximity as porches, yards and gardens that are routinely considered curtilage.”[x]  Specifically, the court stated

Curtilage’ has been defined [by this Court] as ‘the yards and grounds of a particular address, its gardens, barns, [and] buildings.’”  Gebhardt v. State, 307 Ga. 587, 599 (837 SE2d 318) (2019))); Arp v. State, 327 Ga. App. 340, 343 (759 SE2d 57) (2014) (“[T]he yard immediately surrounding one’s dwelling is well within the curtilage.”).[xi]

Third, the Court also noted that the area was secluded, as private, not by a fence by rather by being lined with trees, which made a natural barrier separating the truck’s parking area from view of the road and the surrounding area.  The Court stated

[N]atural barriers, such as hedgerows and thick woods, can “satisfy the requirements of an enclosure” and that the property owner “had planted trees along the perimeter of the property to block visibility”); Daughenbaugh v. City of Tiffin, 150 F3d 594, 599 (6th Cir. 1998) (explaining that several courts “have considered natural enclosures to be compelling evidence” and noting that the garage at issue was “within natural boundaries demarcated by the river and the heavy tree coverage”).

As such, the Court held that the truck was located within the curtilage at the time it was searched pursuant to the search warrant for the residence.

Therefore, the Court held that the trial court did not err in denying 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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Citations

[i] S22A0578 (Ga. Decided September 7, 2022)

[ii] Id. at 4-5

[iii] Id. at 10-12

[iv] Id. at 13 (see also Fn. 10 – “This appears to be the majority rule. See 2 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment § 4.10 (c) Vehicles on or near described premises (6th ed.) (explaining that “[i]t has often been held that a search warrant authorizing the search of certain premises covers automobiles found on those premises, provided of course that the place searched in the vehicle could contain one of the items described in the search warrant,” and collecting cases”).

[v] Id. at 14 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 16 (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 16-17

[viii] Id. at 18-19 (emphasis added)

[ix] Id. at 19

[x] Id. at 20

[xi] Id. (emphasis added)

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