If the Key Fits, Turn It? Curtilage, Home Locks and Evidence

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United States v. Bain, (1st Cir. 2017)

Yrvens Bain was on probation following a series of drug trafficking convictions and some prison time. Investigators made multiple controlled buys of heroin from Bain, but Bain was ultimately arrested for an unrelated fight. Upon release from jail, Bain told his probation officer that he would be living with his mother, but the probation officer never saw Bain’s car parked at his mother’s house and never saw Bain there.

Shortly after his release, Bain sent a text message to a confidential informant. He wrote that he’d been away for a few days, but was now back in the heroin supply trade. Investigators directed the confidential informant to make another controlled buy of heroin.

When officers went to arrest Bain, they saw him walking out of a multifamily residence. They approached Bain just as he reached his car, where he locked himself inside and swallowed something. The officers got Bain out of the car, arrested him, and searched him, finding a set of keys.

The officers took the keys into the residence and tried the keys on the various apartments. One key fit an entry door on a second-floor apartment. The officers obtained a search warrant for that apartment and a subsequent search revealed a credit card-making machine, latex gloves, plastic baggies with the corners torn off, Bain’s identification, a parking ticket for Bain’s car, heroin, fentanyl, a razor blade, assorted pills, a handgun with an obliterated serial number and a magazine containing bullets.

Bain asked the court to suppress the items found, claiming that the act of trying the key in the lock was, in fact, a warrantless search prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. The court began its analysis by questioning whether the lock itself was within the home’s curtilage. If so, under the Supreme Court decision in Florida v. Jardines (569 U.S. 1 (2013)), turning the key was a search. The scope of the curtilage of a home is determined by considering four factors: the proximity to the home, whether it is fenced or otherwise enclosed, the nature of the use of the area, and the efforts the resident takes to screen the area from public view (United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987)).

The court held that inserting and turning the key was a search, since the lock is a part of the home’s curtilage. The lock was certainly proximate to the home and it is the very tool used to screen the home from public view or entry. The court further held that “without the information obtained by turning the key, there was no probable cause to issue a warrant to search” the apartment. Thus, the warrant was invalid.

Still, at the end of the day, Bain becomes a five-time loser. The court held that the officers reasonably relied on the search warrant. Applying the good faith rule of United States v. Leon (468 U.S. 897 (1984)), the evidence was admissible against Bain. Though they were technically mistaken in trying the key in the door, the fact that the officers took the trouble to obtain a warrant to search the apartment showed their good faith and saved the evidence from suppression.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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