People in the United States, including Arizona residents, expect a right to privacy within their own property. The wording of the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids police officers from conducting “unreasonable” search and seizure, which means they cannot enter private property without a warrant. However, for centuries, court cases have attempted to define the parameters of the word “unreasonable.” For that matter, there is also an ongoing debate about what is considered private property that’s not open to uninvited visitors. In an attempt to address the issue of whether or not the police can enter private property without a warrant issued for probable cause, the court has put several laws into place to define where the police can and cannot go on a private citizen’s property.
The law uses its understanding of the word “curtilage” in order to define the spaces where a resident can and cannot expect a reasonable amount of choice as to who can access their property. The curtilage is the area immediately surrounding a residence such as the lawn, yard, or walkway toward a front door. This area is typically considered open for access. For example, you couldn’t make a trespassing charge against a delivery person, a new neighbor, or a cookie-selling girl scout who walks across your front lawn to knock on your door. The curtilage only refers to the area of a property immediately surrounding the home.
The court considers police officers to be within the law if they approach a residence to knock on a front door (a “knock and talk”) as long as the curtilage is open to others. However, this rule changes under certain circumstances.
Police officers are allowed to walk onto private property anywhere any other uninvited visitor would be free to go, such as up a front walkway to the door. However, if a resident wishes to prevent the police and others from approaching their front door or entering the area around their home known as the curtilage, simply posting a no-trespassing sign alone is not enough to prevent the police from legally entering the property, including in Arizona. Nor is having a fence installed around the property enough to legally prevent the police from entering. However, a resident legally revokes permission to approach a home through the curtilage through the following two means together:
The courts have decided that this combination of actions essentially makes the curtilage a part of the home itself and off-limits to uninvited visitors including the police. Police officers must have a warrant in order to enter a property with both a fence and a no-trespassing sign. The courts consider this combination as sufficient notice that the resident of the property has revoked the right that others have to enter the curtilage.
If police officers ignore a posted “No Trespassing sign” and walk into a fenced-off area to approach a home, they’ve violated the owner’s 4th amendment rights. If they find cause for criminal charges while on your property they’ve committed an illegal search and seizure that could be grounds for the dismissal of their case.
If you have questions about police entry to your property or illegal search and seizure, an Arizona criminal defense attorney can help.