State v. Walter Bash, HUGE WIN in the SCSCt on a Fourth Amendment Claim, and Reaffirming the Sanctity of the Curtilage.

UPDATE:  On March 15, 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court substituted this opinion to clarify that circuit court did not rely on the officers’ subjective intent to determine whether the officers conducted a search, and that the officers’ objective purpose is the proper inquiry.  YAY!   THE GREAT WIN STAYS IN PLACE!

Excellent win by Susan Hackett of the Office of Indigent Defense!  Here, the police received an anonymous “tip” that “drug activity” was occurring at a rural home in Berkeley County, SC.  The police threw on their gear and headed out there.  They noticed some men in the backyard area near a pick up truck, and rode up on them there.  There was a small utility shed in the backyard, too, along with a grill.  When the police came into that area of the yard, one of the officers testified he saw one of the men throw down what appeared to be cocaine, and another man exited the truck and ran into the wood.  An officer pursued that person.  Meanwhile, another officer looked into the truck, and saw what appeared to be cocaine scales and cocaine base (crack).  Based on this, Bash was indicted for trafficking cocaine.

The circuit court at Bash’s trial suppressed the drugs finding an unreasonable search and seizure because law enforcement lacked a warrant, and the area was part of the curtilage of the home.  The State appealed that order (of course), and the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed that finding and remanded the case for a trial.  Bash appealed that, and the South Carolina Supreme Court granted certiorari.  The Court then reversed the Court of Appeals.

The Fourth Amendment protects people’s rights to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  US Constitution Amendment 4.  This area also extends to the curtilage of a home.  State v. Herring, 387 S.C. 201, 209 (2009) (citing United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294(1987) and Rogers v. Pendleton, 249 F.3d 279 (4th Cir. 2001).

Law enforcement entered the curtilage of Bash’s home without a warrant.  Curtilage can include “outbuildings, yard around dwelling, garden.”  State v. Wiggins, 330 S.C. 538, 548 n. 15, 500 S.E.2d 489, 494, n. 15 (1998). Our Supreme Court found there was evidence in the record to support the circuit court’s finding that this area was curtilage.  The area included a grill, and a shed.  There was also a clothes line in the area.  The road that led to this area, although it was a public road, was a short dirt road that only reached a few residences. Large trees provided a natural barrier.

The United States, in Dunn, identified four factors that courts should consider in deciding whether an area is part of the curtilage of a home:

            Drawing upon the Court’s own cases and the cumulative experience of the lower courts that have grappled with the task of defining the extent of a home’s curtilage, we believe that curtilage questions should be resolved with particular reference to four factors:  the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home, whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home, the nature of the uses to which the area is put, and the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by.

Id. at 301.

In short, the Court found this area was protected Constitutional space, and the police invaded it without a warrant.  As a result, the fruits of that search had to be suppressed.  The opinion then details what it identified as the factual and legal errors made by the Court of Appeals when they initially reversed the circuit court judge.  Also of note is footnote 8 in which the Court makes it clear that it is basing its result on its Fourth Amendment analysis, and declined to analyze this case under the South Carolina Constitution’s privacy provisions contained in Article I, Section 10.

Excellent opinion, all around.  In South Carolina, a person’s home remains his or her castle for another day!