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State v. Chute

Supreme Court of Minnesota

March 14, 2018

State of Minnesota, Appellant,
v.
Quentin Todd Chute, Respondent.

         Office of Appellate Courts Court of Appeals

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and John J. Choi, Ramsey County Attorney, Adam E. Petras, Assistant County Attorney, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Steven P. Russett, Assistant Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         The police officer's warrantless entry onto the curtilage of respondent's home and subsequent investigation of a camper trailer was objectively a nonconsensual search that violated respondent's Fourth Amendment rights, not a permissible "knock-and-talk" procedure.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, Justice.

         Respondent Quentin Todd Chute was convicted of possession of a stolen camper trailer. He challenges the district court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained when an officer entered his property, examined the stolen camper, and then, after obtaining Chute's consent, searched his home. Chute contends that the officer's examination of the camper violated his Fourth Amendment rights and tainted his subsequent consent to the officer's search of his home. The district court concluded that the officer's entry onto Chute's property was lawful because the camper was on a driveway that was impliedly open to the public, and that the officer had authority to seize the camper under the plain-view doctrine. The court of appeals reversed, and the State sought review. We conclude that because the officer's conduct objectively amounted to a search and was not a permissible "knock-and-talk, "[1] the warrantless search violated Chute's Fourth Amendment rights. We therefore affirm the court of appeals.

         FACTS

         In July 2011, Maplewood resident B.F. discovered that his pop-up tent camper had been stolen, and he reported the theft to the police. Several months later, B.F. was driving on County Road D in Maplewood when he saw what he thought was his camper sitting in Chute's backyard.

         Chute's house is located between two other houses on County Road D, facing north. His lot is bordered on three sides by a tall, opaque fence on the east side, a small pond on the south side, and some trees on the west side. The north side of the property is unfenced and borders County Road D, which has no curb.

         The district court found that the property has two driveways. The first, on the west side of the house, is a short asphalt driveway leading to a detached garage. The second is a dirt driveway accessed from the county road, running along the home's east side, and looping around in the backyard. The district court found that the dirt driveway is "well-worn" and forms "a turnaround or circle" in the backyard. The camper was parked at the end of the dirt driveway, near the southeast corner of the backyard. Two other cars were parked near the camper on the dirt driveway. A second garage is located in the back of the house on the west side of the lot.

         After spotting the camper, B.F. made a U-turn and drove past again to verify that it was his stolen camper. B.F. later testified that he could recognize the camper from County Road D because he could see a series of bolts that he had installed along the rear overhang of the roof when making repairs on the camper. B.F. called the police.

         When the responding officer arrived, he verified from the end of the dirt driveway, while still on County Road D, that the camper on Chute's property matched the description of the stolen trailer in the police report made at the time of the theft. The officer then drove onto the dirt driveway and parked his squad car approximately halfway down the driveway, which he estimated to be about 200 feet from County Road D. The officer and B.F. then walked to the camper. At some point before they reached the camper, B.F. told the officer about the unique set of bolts on the trailer.

         When he reached the camper, the officer noticed that the camper's license plate and vehicle identification number (VIN) had been removed. He called the manufacturer and learned that a partial VIN was stamped on the camper's frame. The officer located the partial VIN, which was consistent with that of B.F.'s stolen camper. The officer then entered the camper and located an item of B.F.'s personal property.

         The officer testified that, once he verified that the camper was the one stolen from B.F., he "tried to make contact with the homeowner." He started walking toward the back of the home to knock on the door, but when he heard voices from the garage in the backyard, he decided to knock there instead. Chute answered the door and, after a discussion, allowed the officer to search the garage. After finding several items of B.F.'s personal property from the camper in the garage, the officer asked Chute for permission to search his home, and Chute consented. The officer found additional items of personal property belonging to B.F. in Chute's home.

         The State charged Chute with possession of stolen property valued at over $1, 000. See Minn. Stat. § 609.53, subd. 1 (2016); Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 3(3)(a) (2016). Chute moved to suppress "all evidence found by police pursuant to a warrantless search" of his property. After a hearing, the district court made the findings described above. Without explicitly finding that the dirt driveway was within the curtilage of Chute's home, the district court found that, even if it were part of the curtilage, the driveway was "impliedly open to the public" because it appeared that "the area in question was regularly used by cars carrying persons seeking a back door entrance to the house and garage." The court relied on evidence that the area was a "well-worn dirt area, " that a "definable pathway" existed leading to the turnaround area at the back of the house, and that two other vehicles were parked near the camper. The district court further found that "it is very clear to the court that the unique bolts on the camper were visible from the driveway, and after seeing the bolts, it was immediately apparent that the camper was the one stolen" from B.F.

         The district court concluded that, under the plain-view doctrine, the officer had authority to seize the camper "provided he had lawful right of access to it." Because the camper was located on a driveway that was "impliedly open to the public to access [Chute's] home, " the district court concluded that the officer "had a lawful right of access to the camper." As a result, the court denied Chute's motion to suppress. After a trial, a jury found Chute guilty of possessing stolen property. See Minn. Stat. § 609.53, subd. 1.

         The court of appeals reversed in relevant part. State v. Chute, 887 N.W.2d 834 (Minn.App. 2016). The court of appeals held that the plain-view doctrine did not justify the officer's search of the camper because he did not have a lawful right of access to it. Id. at 843. Although the driveway was within the home's curtilage, the court said, and "[g]enerally, police may not search the curtilage without a warrant, " id. at 841 (citing State v. Milton, 821 N.W.2d 789, 799 (Minn. 2012)), "police with legitimate business may enter areas within the curtilage of the home if those areas are impliedly open to the public, " id. (citing State v. Crea, 233 N.W.2d 736, 739 (Minn. 1975)). Whether an officer's entry onto curtilage is legitimate, the court stated, is "determined by considering the scope of the implied license that homeowners extend to visitors." Id. (citing Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6-11 (2013)). The court concluded that the officer exceeded the scope of the implied license to enter the driveway because he entered with the purpose to conduct a search. Id. at 842.

         The court further held that the unlawful search of the camper tainted Chute's subsequent consent to the search of his home, and therefore all evidence from that search should also be suppressed. Id. at 843-44. The court of appeals declined to address whether the remaining evidence was sufficient to support Chute's conviction and remanded to the district court. Id. at 846-47.

         The State filed a petition for review, arguing that the court of appeals erred when it held that the officer's examination of the camper was an unlawful search. We granted review.

         ANALYSIS

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