COA: Officer peeking in window acted as Girl Scout would

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A man with drug-related convictions failed to sway an appellate court that his rights against illegal search and seizure were violated when an officer peeked through his window before arresting him. The Indiana Court of Appeals concluded the officer acted no differently than a Girl Scout in approaching the man’s door.

After Rockport Police Officer Shon Shourds received two anonymous tips of drug activity at Zachary Taylor’s home, Shourds approached Taylor’s front door to conduct a “knock and talk.”  But before knocking, Shourds peered through a small gap left by the window’s closed blinds and saw two individuals with a smoking device commonly associated with drug use inside.

A search warrant was granted despite not having conducted the “knock and talk.” Meth, marijuana and a digital scale were found inside the apartment. Taylor was subsequently arrested on numerous drug dealing and possession charges.

Taylor unsuccessfully filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in his apartment at trial on the basis that the search violated the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 11 rights against illegal search and seizure. After a trial, the jury returned guilty verdicts on Level 6 felony possession of methamphetamine, Level 6 felony maintaining a common nuisance, and Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Taylor subsequently pleaded guilty to having prior convictions that enhanced two of those convictions to Level 5 felony possession of methamphetamine and Level 6 felony possession of marijuana. The trial court vacated the maintaining a common nuisance conviction due to double jeopardy concerns.

Taylor was sentenced to an aggregate 14 years in prison with one year suspended.

To defend his assertion that Shourds committed an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment while in the curtilage of the apartment, Taylor cited Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). In that case, the Jardines court found the use of a drug-sniffing dog in the curtilage of a private residence constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. But the Indiana Court of Appeals found Jardines was distinguishable from the scenario in Zachary J. Taylor v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-1757.

Despite the cases similarities, the appellate court noted that Shourds’ action of simply approaching the door to be received did not rise to the level intrusion found to violate the Fourth Amendment in Jardines.

“While the area of the curtilage is a protected area under the Fourth Amendment, Officer Shourds did no more than an ordinary citizen is implicitly licensed to do under Jardines,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the panel. “The fact that Officer Shourds had to reposition his body to view this activity is of no consequence — if Taylor had intended for all of the activity within the apartment to be private, he would have ensured no one could see inside when arriving at his front door.”

The panel further found that because the items in the apartment were in “open view” and that Taylor had not fully covered his window indicating the activities inside were private, Shourds’ action did not constitute an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.

A similar conclusion was met on Taylor’s second assertion when the panel found the act was minimally invasive and did not equal an impermissible search under Article I, Section 11 for two reasons: Shourds had received tips concerning drug use beforehand and approached the door in the same manner as a public citizen, like a Girl Scout or trick-or-treater.

“Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted the items found as part of the search warrant prompted, in part, by Officer Shourds’ observations through the gap in the window,” May concluded for the panel.

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