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United States v. House

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

December 16, 2019




         Before the Court is Defendant Robert Anthony House's motion to suppress. (Doc. 20). The Court held a hearing on the motion on December 6, 2019. ATF Special Agents Phillip Swain and Ryan Young testified for the Government. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion.

         I. Background

         In spring 2019, the Billings Police Department responded to a 911 call concerning a citizen behaving erratically. BPD officers located and detained the citizen, later identified as Robert Anthony House, and transported him to a local hospital for treatment. Due to House's behavior, the hospital's security guard searched House and his backpack. In House's jacket, the security guard found a knife. In the backpack, the security guard found narcotics, drug paraphernalia, and a Taurus pistol. BPD officers took custody of the backpack and its contents and the matter was later referred to ATF Special Agent Philip Swain.

         After receiving the case, Special Agent Swain inspected the backpack. He found no identifying information in or on the backpack, but he did find what looked like a silver house key. Special Agent Swain determined House lived with his mother over in East Helena, three hours away. Wondering if the silver house key could tie House to the backpack, Special Agent Swain FedExed it to Helena-based ATF Special Agent Ryan Young.

         Special Agent Young received the key and drove out to the residence. The residence was in a rural area, down a long driveway. At the front of the driveway was a large swinging gate with signs that said "POSTED NO TRESPASSING" and "POSTED NO TRESPASSING KEEP OUT." On this day, the gate was open.

         Special Agent Young drove down the driveway to the residence. The residence had a front deck and attached garage. There was a vehicle parked in front of the garage. Special Agent Young approached the front door, knocked, and asked "is anybody home?" When he received no answer, Special Agent Young tried to insert the silver key into the front door's two locks. It didn't fit either lock. Special Agent Young walked over to the attached garage and inserted the key into the garage's entry door lock. The key snugly turned the lock. Special Agent Young turned the door handle and opened the entry door a few inches to confirm the key had unlocked the door. He then closed the door and relocked it with the key.

         House was indicted for being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g). He filed this motion to suppress evidence that the silver key fit the attached garage's entry door.

         II. Discussion

         The question before the Court is whether the insertion of a key into an attached garage's lock by a federal agent is a search requiring a search warrant or warrant exception. The Court holds that it is.

         In United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court supplemented the traditional Katz test for a search by formulating what it called a "physical intrusion" test. Under United States v. Katz, a search occurs when the government invades a place in which a person has an expectation of privacy and society is willing to recognize the person's expectation as reasonable. 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967) (Harlan, J., concurring). For over 40 years, the Katz test determined whether government conduct was a search. But the Katz test proved an awkward fit for the government's conduct in Jones.

         In Jones, the government mounted a GPS tracker on a citizen's car and argued under Katz it had not committed a search because the citizen had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his whereabouts on public roads. 565 U.S. 400, 406 (2012). The Supreme Court agreed the government's conduct was not a search under Katz but explained the Fourth Amendment also shielded citizens from government trespass into houses, papers, and effects. 565 U.S. at 406-407. Because placing a GPS tracker on a car to obtain information was the sort of physical intrusion common law would have recognized as a government trespass, and because a car was an "effect," the government had searched the car by placing a GPS tracker on it. 565 U.S. at 404-411.

         The Supreme Court elaborated on the Jones physical intrusion test in Florida v. Jardines. In Jardines, the police walked up to a citizen's front door with a trained narcotics dog. The dog sniffed the base of the front door and indicated to the officers that narcotics were present behind the door. 569 U.S. 1, 4 (2013). Building on Jones, the Supreme Court held the police had committed a search because they physically intruded into a protected area-the home and its curtilage-to gather information, and had exceeded any implied permission the homeowner may have given to the public to approach the home and knock when they used a narcotics dog to sniff the door. 569 U.S. at 10-11.

         Jones and Jardines were limited to whether the government conduct was a search; neither answered whether the search at issue was reasonable. Five years after Jardines, however, the Supreme Court held a warrantless physical intrusion into the home or its curtilage is ...

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