The North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Lowe (December 21, 2016) ruled that a search warrant validly authorized a search of a vehicle parked on the driveway of the premises and within its curtilage, and it reversed a contrary ruling by the Court of Appeals (State v. Lowe, 774 S.E.2d 893, 21 July 2015). This post discusses the supreme court’s ruling.
Facts. On September 24, 2013, a detective obtained a search warrant for 529 Ashebrook Drive in Raleigh. The affidavit alleged that the detective received (anonymous) information that Michael Turner was selling, using, and storing narcotics at this address, and he had been charged with various drug offenses dating back to 2001, including possession with intent to sell or deliver methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. It also alleged that earlier on September 24, 2013, the detective had collected a bag of refuse from a garbage container that was at the curb in front of the address. The bag contained correspondence to Michael Turner with that address, and a field test kit tested positive for marijuana residue in a fast food bag. The warrant authorized the search of the “premises, vehicle, person and other place or item described in the application for the property and person in question.”
The next day officers executed the search warrant. They saw a Volkswagen rental car parked in the driveway. The detective was aware of Turner’s vehicles, but they were not present. Inside the residence the officers encountered defendant Lowe and his girlfriend, who were Turner’s overnight guests. A search of residence revealed 853 grams of marijuana in the home as well as 14 grams of MDMA in the room occupied by Lowe and his girlfriend. The officers then searched the rental car (the detective had determined during the house search that this car was being operated by Lowe and his girlfriend) and found MDMA, LSD, and other items.
Court’s Ruling. The court noted that its prior case law, such as State v. Reid, 286 N.C. 323 (1974), had recognized that when a search warrant validly describes the premises to be searched, a car on the premises may be searched even though the warrant does not describe the car. In the case of a private residence, the court said that the “premises” by necessity encompasses the home’s curtilage, which is the area immediately surrounding the home that is so intimately tied to the home itself that it deserves the Fourth Amendment’s protection. The court stated that it was not disputed that when the officers arrived to execute the warrant, the rental car parked in the driveway was within the curtilage. And the nature of the items to be seized (e.g., controlled substances) could easily be stored in a vehicle.
The court concluded that the search of the rental car was authorized by the search warrant regardless of whether the officers knew the car was rented by someone other than the owner or possessor of the premises. The court rejected the court of appeals’ view that the officers’ knowledge about the ownership and control of the vehicle constituted a crucial fact in distinguishing this case from Reid and its progeny.
Comments. Any ambiguity about prior case law concerning the issue decided in Lowes has been resolved by the court’s ruling. It now appears that any car within the curtilage of private premises, regardless of its owner or possessor, is subject to a search pursuant to a valid search warrant when the object of the search could reasonably be found there.
Despite the Lowes ruling, it may still be advisable that officers applying for a search warrant describe the vehicles that they reasonably believe may be on the premises so the warrant specifically authorizes their search. A description would be useful if the officers arrive at a large property and the vehicles are (1) located on the property but not within the curtilage, or (2) completely off the property but nearby.
The description in a search warrant of “all vehicles present on the premises” is generally invalid unless there is probable cause to believe that all vehicles on the premises would contain the items to be seized. However, if the description is invalid, it would not affect the legality of a proper search of those vehicles under Lowes and other cases.