April 29, 2011 – A police officer who entered Ralph Davis’s open garage violated his Fourth Amendment rights, the District III Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently concluded.
Ralph Davis filed a complaint that a forest service employee stole some of his property. The next day, a deputy arrived at Davis’s modified trailer home to collect a statement form. The trailer home is attached to a foyer and a two-car garage. The home’s front entry door opens to the foyer, which is connected to the residence on one side and the garage on the other.
The deputy knocked on the front door, but Davis didn’t answer. So the deputy called into an open garage door and received no response. He walked into the garage, and once inside, noticed another door to the residence at the back of the garage.
The door was open, so the deputy walked through it into the foyer, where he observed a rifle leaning against the wall. Davis finally appeared and told the deputy to leave. When the deputy returned to the station, he learned Davis had a felony conviction.
The police later got a search warrant for Davis’s home, where they found multiple firearms. The state charged Davis on 12 counts of felony possession of a firearm.
Davis moved to suppress all evidence seized as a result of the search, arguing the deputy violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Davis pled guilty after the Oconto County Circuit Court ruled a good faith exception applied.
But in State v. Davis, 2010AP2191-CR (April 26, 2011), the appeals court – in an opinion written by Judge Michael Hoover – reversed and concluded the deputy “unreasonably invaded the home’s curtilage when he entered the attached garage.”
Since the deputy spotted the rifle during an illegal entry, the court explained, the search warrant was invalid and all evidence seized as a result of it must be suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The court ruled that even though State v. Leutenegger, 2004 WI App 127, 2775 Wis. 2d 512, 685 N.W.2d 536, might allow police to enter an open garage attached to a house if “the least intrusive means of establishing contact with an occupant,” in this case, entering the garage was not the least restrictive means of making contact with Davis.
“As a general matter, it is unacceptable for a member of the public [or police] to enter a home’s attached garage uninvited,” Judge Hoover wrote. “This premise is true regardless whether an overhead or entry door is open.”
In a footnote, the court explained that “[l]eaving a garage door open might reduce the resident’s privacy interest and permit plain view observations from outside the garage, but that is a matter distinct from physical intrusion.”