How do courts determine whether police searches of yards and outbuildings are valid?

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Courts recognize that people have a legitimate expectation of privacy in their homes and nearby outbuildings. To search them, police must have a warrant, or a valid exception to the warrant requirement must apply.

But what about more distant barns and other structures--do they deserve the same amount of Constitutional protection? The Supreme Court has stated that four factors are involved in answering whether the area is so "intimiately tied to the home" that it deserves Fourth Amendment protection: How close is the home to the area claimed to be private? A shed a few feet from the back door might qualify; a barn that's sixty yards away might not.

  1. Is the area included in an enclosure that also surrounds the home? If the shed is outside the fenced yard, it might not qualify.
  2. What is the area used for? If it's abandoned, or used to manufacture drugs, there's no "reasonable expectation of privacy."
  3. What steps did the resident take to keep the area private? Extensive fencing and landscaping might support a claim that the area was meant to be private.(U.S. v. Dunn, U.S. Supreme Court, 1987.)

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