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Evidence of Marijuana & Other Drugs Thrown Out Due to Illegal Warrantless Search of Home’s Backyard

backyard curtilage search illegal dismissed

In this case, police were conducting a “knock and talk” to discuss suspected drugs in the home.  The police did not have a warrant.  However, one of the officers ventured to back of the house — without a warrant — and observed marijuana plants on the deck.  

This observation then supported a warrant to search the home and the homeowner’s car, which both contained a substantial amount of drugs and paraphernalia.  But because the initial officer’s search of the backyard (the “curtilage”) of the home was without a warrant, everything that followed was inadmissible.  

Police Search the Side and Backyard (the “Curtilage”) of a Home Without a Warrant

The sheriff’s office’s street crime reduction unit was conducting a “knock and talk” at a rural home.  The Major Crimes Unit had received two anonymous tips that a marijuana grow operation and methamphetamine lab were located on the property.  The home’s residents were known to the officer due to a prior “knock and talk” involving an allegation of drug activity.

The officers planned to approach the front door, knock, and ask to speak with the residents, while four additional officers would spread out around the perimeter of the residence for “officer safety” and to ensure that no one ran out the back.

Officers noted a Harley–Davidson parked outside of the home, registered to one of the owners.  The defendant answered the door, the officer identified himself and said he was responding to complaints of drug activity.  The officer asked if he could come inside.  The defendant said she needed to put her dog away and closed the door.

As soon as she closed the door, the officer at the door was told that one of the officers in the back of the house had observed marijuana plants on a rear deck.  

He knocked again and told her to come outside.  He heard people people inside saying “hang on,” (telling her to wait before opening the door), and the officer decided to make an “exigent entry.”  He opened the door partway, and announced “Sheriff’s office, we’re coming in.”  As he entered, the residents were walking toward the front door from the dining room.  

The entire house was swept to make sure no one else was inside.  The defendants were kept outside while they awaited a search warrant.  In the meantime, another officer walked through the yard (purportedly for “officer safety”) where he observed a rear deck with seven potted marijuana plants.

After the police got a warrant, they searched the house, car, and the outside property. In the main bedroom where the defendant had placed her dog, officers “found an open safe containing cash, ammunition, marijuana, instructions for cooking methamphetamine, and two firearms.”  They also found digital scales, a bag of marijuana seeds, clippings from marijuana plants, and a book about marijuana in the bedroom.

In the living room, officers found “pipes commonly used to smoke crack cocaine and methamphetamine, baggies, and marijuana seeds.”  In her car, they found more marijuana and traces of methamphetamine. 

Defendant was indicted with one count of illegal assembly of chemicals for the manufacture of drugs, trafficking in marijuana, and possession of marijuana.

All Charges Dropped Due to an Illegal Search

She moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search of the home and car.   At the hearing, the defense introduced photos of the house, which showed a small bungalow, vehicle covered with a tarp and numerous “no trespassing” signs.  

The rear deck could be seen only from the side and back of the house — not from the front or the front door.  

Under Ohio law, police cannot enter the “curtilage” of a home without a warrant.  The “curtilage” is the area surrounding the house.   Because the officers entered the backyard without a warrant – they violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right to be from unreasonable search.

Thus, all convictions were overturned and charges were dropped.  

State v. Graf, 2014-Ohio-3603