The case is called State v. Walter Bash, filed December 21, 2016. As we previously reported, the decision shows when officers need a warrant to search an area closely tied to a home, like the backyard.
The officers in that case got no warrant before riding up behind a home to investigate a drug tip. When the men behind the home saw the officers, pandemonium ensued. One threw down cocaine. Another jumped out of a parked truck and ran into the woods, with officers giving chase. When Walter Bash got out of the driver’s side of the truck, officers found cocaine weighing scales and cocaine base. He got charged with trafficking.
At Bash’s trial, when the judge ruled officers needed a warrant to be on the property, their response was basically, “No problem. We weren’t really searching anyway, so we actually didn’t need a warrant.”
I’m thinking the same thing you are: Do whaaaaaaat? The response was actually more sophisticated, but the point’s the same. The State tried to claim an exception to the warrant requirement, called “knock-and-talk.” The Supreme Court disagreed in plain terms, limiting police ability to just show up at a home looking for crime and suspects.
Police Can’t Just Roll Up In Somebody’s Backyard
The Supreme Court pointed out a police search actually means less than looking for evidence of crime, like drugs.
The Court ruled a search occurs “[w]hen officers physically occupy private property for the purpose of obtaining information,” citing a 2012 United States Supreme Court case called U.S. v. Jones. In other words, a search occurs when officers show up somewhere just intending to get information.
Turning to what the officers did with Bash, the South Carolina Supreme Court recited the trial judge’s rather colorful ruling: “[T]he Fourth Amendment does not ‘allow you to roll up in somebody's backyard when your sole purpose for going there is to search it…[The officers] roll[ed] up in the backyard solely to search for drugs. And there's no reasonable interpretation of the officers' testimony other than that's why they were there. They were not there to politely ask the homeowner, ‘Hey, are you selling drugs out of your house?’ They were there to see if they could find any.”
Folks, I’ve gotta tell you, that’s as funny as it gets in a felony criminal trial. The ridicule you can detect from the ruling might hint at what the trial judge—and the Supreme Court—really thought about the State’s claim here.
Anyway, having determined the officers committed a search, the Supreme Court rejected the State’s final argument the officers just did a knock-and-talk.
The Knock-and-Talk: “We’re From the Government and We’re Here To Help…Ourselves”
The knock-and-talk is a police tactic to find evidence at a home without a warrant. The strategy is simple: the officer just strolls up to your front door, knocks on it, and speaks with whomever answers it. It’s not considered a search, so any evidence of crime officers find as a result is free game and admissible in trial.
The Supreme Court rejected the knock-and-talk claim in this case for three main reasons:
- Officers testified they weren’t doing one. (Personally, I think that admission pretty much resolves the question, but wait—there’s more).
- The Court actually found it more important that all the circumstances in the case showed the officers intended to search, including bypassing the front door to go straight to the backyard. That’s a real good point. I’m no law professor, but it seems to me it’s really hard to have a knock-and-talk without a knock.
- Finally, officers never gave even an indication they intended to speak with the homeowner. So we have a knock-and-talk without a knock or a talk.
To sum it up for me, the Supreme Court absolutely slammed the State’s knock-and-talk claim…because it didn’t exist.
The ruling kept the drug evidence out of trial, meaning the case is likely dismissed. Just like you can’t have a have a knock-and-talk without a knock or a talk, you can’t have a cocaine trafficking case without cocaine.
You Have Rights—But Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell
Just because police are where you are doesn’t mean they have the right to be, and just because they catch you red-handed doesn’t mean you can’t win. You have rights created by law, which the police are bound by, too.
The law of police searches is extremely complex. If you are charged with drug possession or distribution or another crime, you’ll need a sharp, determined criminal defense attorney to dive deep into the facts to develop defenses that could get your case dismissed or at least get you a deal you can live with.
If you think your constitutional rights may have been violated by a search or you’re just scared to death what the police will do with your charges, you need to act fast to protect your rights now. Feel free to send us an email or just call (888) 230-1841 to set up a free meeting so we can answer your questions and start building a defense to protect you from the government.