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Can Police Search a Car Parked in Your Driveway? Massachusetts Appeals Court Decides

Under the Fourth Amendment, police cannot search a person’s home with a warrant, with limited exceptions. When there is a warrant issued, it must be particularized and specific. Officers are typically not allowed to search outside the limits of the warrant. The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently looked at the case of Commonwealth v. Campbellwhere police ventured outside the scope of their warrant. 

What happened in the Campbell case?

The police obtained a warrant to search the defendant’s home. At the time of the search, there were three cars parked in the gravel parking lot in front of the detached three-car garage located ten feet away from the house. The search warrant made no reference to the vehicles in the parking lot. While in the home executing the warrant, the police located the keys to the defendant’s car. The car was parked the furthest from the house, about twenty feet away. The officers searched the car and found thirty-two small bags containing a total of approximately fifteen grams of crack cocaine. 

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of his car, arguing that because it was parked outside of the home’s curtilage, the search warrant for the home did not authorize the search of the car. The motion was denied. 

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and held that the motion to suppress the evidence found in the car should have been allowed. Cars outside the curtilage of the home are outside the scope of the warrant. The curtilage of the home is an area of land attached to a house and forming one enclosure with it. It is the perimeter of the home. There is no bright-line rule of what is defined as curtilage, but there are four factors that are used to make this determination. 

  1. The proximity of the area to the home 
  2. Whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home 
  3. The nature of the uses to which the area is put 
  4. The steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observations by people passing by 

Applying these factors, the court found that although the defendant’s car was parked close to the home, but it was parked closer to the street and to the neighboring house than to his own house. The parking area was not enclosed. The nature of the use was exclusive, so this turns in favor of the car being on the curtilage. Additionally, the residents of the home took no steps to conceal the parking area from observation. A passerby could easily peer into or under the cars parked. The appellate court applied these factors and  found that car was parked outside of the curtilage of the home. 

These factors, taken together, show that the defendant’s car was outside of the curtilage and therefore the search of the car exceeded the scope of the warrant. Without the evidence of crack cocaine seized from the car, the state would not have been able to sustain the conviction for possession with intent to distribute. The defendant’s conviction was vacated. 

Fourth Amendment rights are important and must be protected. Police officers will often attempt to exceed their authority and intrude on constitutionally protected areas. Warrants must be highly specific and officers cannot exceed their scope.  

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