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Supreme Court ruling: police can’t snoop around your home

A police officer drives by your house and spots you in your driveway. You appear to be suspiciously stowing something behind your back seat. Does the officer have the right to take a closer look around?

You may already know that the police can’t search your house without a search warrant. However, the police are allowed to search a car without a warrant—if there is evidence of a crime in plain sight. But what if your vehicle is parked on private property—e.g., in your driveway? Is your driveway protected by the same privacy laws as your home, or does the law enabling an officer to search a suspicious car take precedence?

Last week, we discussed a U.S. Supreme Court decision surrounding a driver’s expectation of privacy in a rental car. This week, the Supreme Court made a second pivotal ruling on privacy rights associated with motor vehicles.

According to the 8-1 ruling, a police officer must have a warrant not only to search your home, but also to enter your property. This means that the area around your home—known as the curtilage—is protected under the law from unreasonable search or unauthorized entry. In other words, a police officer may not wander onto your property and start peeking around, in search of something illegal.

Privacy advocates have applauded the ruling. The stance of the Supreme Court on such privacy matters is clear: What you do on your own property is your business—unless an officer has probable cause to suspect something illicit.

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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