FOURTH AMENDMENT SEARCH & SEIZURE
by Jennifer Bruening
“Knock and talk” permits curtilage intrusions when contact attempts at the front door fail and an officer reasonably believes the homeowner is in or around their home. Hardesty v Hamburg Township ___ F.3d ___ (September 1, 2006).
In a case of first impression, the Sixth Circuit recently extended the “knock and talk” technique, often employed by law enforcement officials during their investigations, beyond the front door of a person’s home and into the curtilage when the circumstances indicate that someone is present inside the home and attempts to contact them by knocking on the front door are unsuccessful.
In Hardesty v Hamburg Township et al, ___ F.3d ___(2006), several officers proceeded to the back deck of the Plaintiffs’ home after their loud knocks on the front door and several dispatch calls proved unsuccessful to contact the persons inside the home. The officers did not have a warrant, but they believed that people were home because they had arrested an intoxicated minor coming from the home, several cars were present in the driveway, and when the officers approached the home, an interior light was turned off. Once on the back deck, the officers observed an unresponsive young man who appeared to need medical assistance and they initiated entry into the home. The plaintiffs filed suit alleging unreasonable search and seizure after the officers entered the home based upon a medical emergency they only observed after the officers came to the back deck, which is an area ordinarily under the protections of the Fourth Amendment.
Recognizing that a “knock and talk” conducted at the front door might not always result in contact with the homeowner, the Sixth Circuit agreed with its sister circuits that where knocking at a front door is unsuccessful, in spite of indications that someone is present in or around the house, an officer may take reasonable steps to make contact with that person even if those steps require an intrusion into the curtilage of the home.
The use of information obtained from a LEIN check of a license plate does not violate the Fourth Amendment where the officer is in a position to observe the plate, because there is no expectation of privacy in a license plate. United States v. Ellison, ___ F.3d ___ (September 5, 2006).
In a case of first impression, the Sixth Circuit vacated a suppression issued after the trial court determined that information obtained from a LEIN check of the defendant’s license plate constituted fruit from the poisonous tree. The officer in that case observed a van, with the driver inside, idling in a no parking fire lane. Rather than issue the driver of the van a ticket, the officer ran the license plate through LEIN. The search revealed that the owner of the van had a felony warrant for his arrest. After several minutes, a male passenger entered the van, and the officer effected a traffic stop. The passenger volunteered that he was the vehicle’s owner, at which point the officer arrested him on the outstanding warrant. A pat-down search revealed that the defendant possessed several weapons at the time of his arrest. The trial court, however, suppressed the firearms as the fruit of an illegal search.
The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the Defendant had no expectation of privacy in the information contained on a license plate, because the very purpose of a license plate is to display identifying information to the public and law enforcement officials. Because no expectation of privacy existed, the officer did not need probable cause to run a LEIN check on the plate. In conclusion, the Court stated that as long as the officer has a right to be in a position to observe the license plate, any observation of that plate, and the use of any corresponding information obtained from the plate does not violate the Fourth Amendment.