Open Fields v. Curtilage

By:  Dee Wampler

A recent court case concerned a police officer conducting a “knock and talk” at the front door or a backwoods trailer home.  He did not invade the owner’s reasonable expectation of privacy when he walked around the back porch area and saw evidence of a meth lab on the back porch.[1]

Police must respect the distinction between the “open fields” doctrine and the “curtilage” to deliver a cautionary note to officers in their searches.[2]  As a citizen – the Fourth Amendment is suppose to protect your home and your rights of privacy.  There are four factors to consider when determining whether an area falls within the curtilage:

  1. The proximity to the area of the home;
  2. Whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home;
  3. The uses to which the area is put;
  4. The steps you take to protect the area from observations of others.

Officers are not required to stay at the front of a residence as back yards are almost always treated as a part of the curtilage.  The “open fields” doctrine permits warrantless searches of areas beyond the curtilage.[3]  Open fields do not provide setting for those intimate activities that the Fourth Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance but the curtilage evades a precise definition but extends to the “intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.”

[1] Commonwealth v. Dixon, 98 Crim Law 504 (KY 2016).

[2] U.S. v. Dunn, 480 US 294 (1987).

[3] Katz v. U.S., 39 US 349 (1967).