The Expanding Definition of Curtilage Under Minnesota 4th Amendment Protections

Gavel And Justice Scale

The home has long been regarded as one’s most private and protected domain. The Fourth Amendment protects a person’s residence the most and goes to great lengths to ensure this protection is real and meaningful. That is why it extends to not just the inside of the home, but also its curtilage. Where exactly the line is drawn has been a source of great litigation over the years, to say the least. A Minnesota Court of Appeals decision recently expanded the definition of curtilage under Minnesota 4th Amendment protections.

What is the Definition of Curtilage?

Let’s start with the basics. Both the United States and Minnesota constitutions protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government under the 4th Amendment. U.S. Const. amend. IV; Minn. Const. art I, §10. This protection extends to the “curtilage” of your home, requiring law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before conducting a search, unless an exception applies.

But what exactly constitutes curtilage? Curtilage refers to the protected area immediately surrounding and associated with the home that are so intimately tied to the residence itself that they receive the same privacy protections as the home. This includes areas like porches, decks, sheds, and barns. The United Stated Supreme Court, however, has determined “the privacies of life associated with the home do not extend into the area immediately outside one’s curtilage.” This means public spaces like sidewalks and streets are not protected.

Now, the distinction between what is or is not curtilage creates some nuanced scenarios. For example, a fenced-in-backyard would likely be considered curtilage, while an open front yard visible from the street may not be. In a recent decision, however, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has further clarified the definition of curtilage.

In State v. McNeal, the court had to decide whether it was unconstitutional for police to swab an apartment door handle and lock for drug residue without a warrant. While the district court found the door handle and lock were outside the curtilage, the Court of Appeals disagreed, making a crucial distinction. The Court of Appeals found the apartment door handle and lock were within the definition of curtilage because it was “physically attached to and indivisible from the appellant’s home.”

Using a four-factor test established by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Dunn, the Court of Appeals analyzed (1) the proximity of the area to the home, (2) whether it was enclosed, (3) the nature of its use, (4) and any steps taken to protect it from observation. Ultimately, because the court concluded that the door handle and lock were part and parcel of the apartment’s curtilage, law enforcement’s intrusion without a warrant was unreasonable.

This decision has extended the constitutional protections to areas that are physically part of the home even if they are partially exposed to public view. It illustrates the nuanced analysis required to determine what is included in the definition of curtilage and the importance of understanding evolving case law – not to mention how to push the definition even further via smart litigation and arguments to include even more within the definition of curtilage.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you find yourself facing charges stemming from officers conducting a search in your home or curtilage, it is critical to get a Minnesota attorney that understands the constitutional nuances associated with searches and seizures. The North Star team is one you need to fight and counsel you through these challenging times.