5th Circuit Opens the Barn Door on 4th Amendment Searches

By April 19, 2012Theft

Fort Worth Weapon Charges Defense LawyersBelow is a case update from the 5th Circuit (Federal)

U.S. v. Cooke, 5th Circuit, March 13, 2012

While appellant was in jail, federal agents approached him and asked for consent to search his house.  He refused.  A week later, while he was still in jail, federal agents went to his house to conduct a knock-and-talk interview.  Appellant’s house was a windowless structure that had two large sliding exterior barn doors.  Behind the barn doors was a large area with a dirt floor and a paved sidewalk path that led to a stoop and another set of doors.  Behind these interior doors were the living quarters where appellant, his wife and his mother lived.  When the agents approached the house, they noticed that one of the exterior barn doors was damaged, allowing them access to walk directly up to the interior doors.  Believing that knocking on the barn door would be futile, the agents walked through the open barn door and knocked on the interior set of doors.  Appellant’s mother answered the door and granted the agents consent to enter the house.  Once inside the house, the agents saw a shotgun shell and gun safe in plain view.  Based on these observations, the agents obtained a search warrant and found illegal firearms, ammunition and a bulletproof vest in appellant’s house.

Appellant argued that the agents unlawfully entered the curtilage of his house when they crossed the threshold of the barn door without a warrant or consent.  The court held that the area inside the barn doors, but outside the interior doors was not part of the curtilage, so the agents did not violate appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the area without consent or a warrant in order to knock on the interior doors.  First, the area had a dirt floor and a paved sidewalk that led to the interior doors.  Second, the contents of the area included non-operating washing machines and dryers, ladders, a grill and other items indicating that the space was used for storage.  Finally, the barn door was open wide enough such that the items stored there were exposed to the elements, the public could see into the area from the street, and anyone would reasonably think that they would have to enter and knock on the interior doors when visiting.

Appellant also argued that under Georgia v. Randolph the warrantless search was invalid because his mother’s consent to the agents’ entry into the house was trumped by his previous refusal to consent.  The court disagreed, stating that Randolph only applied to co-tenants who were physically present and immediately objected to the other co-tenant’s consent.  Here, appellant was not a present and objecting co tenant, but rather was miles away from his home and in jail when he objected to the search.

The Seventh and Eighth Circuits agree and allow searches under similar circumstances; however, the Ninth Circuit does not.

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