Motor Vehicles On Commercial Properties And Surrounding Curtilage

When it comes to executing warrants, the police don’t mess around.  They want to go through everything and be everywhere to find what they are looking for in a house or building.  And a catch all, if you will, on a warrant is the house or building’s surrounding curtilage.  Basically anything that is surrounding or attached to the house or building.  In State v. Nelms, 2017-Ohio-1446, the Second District Court of Appeals took a look at whether or not a motor vehicle can be curtilage if it is parked at a commercial property.

In Nelms, Dayton Police detectives completed a series of undercover buys at various locations, to include a commercial garage.  Based on their undercover buys, the detectives were able to obtain a search warrant of the commercial garage and the surrounding curtilage.

On the date of the execution of the warrant, Nelms and two other occupants pulled up to the commercial garage and went into the building.  After the Nelms and the other men went into the building, the Dayton Police detectives executed their search warrant.  During the search of the building, one of the detectives ordered the search of Nelms’ vehicle because it was on the property’s surrounding curtilage.

Nelms was arrested and indicted on one count of possession of heroin, one count of possession of cocaine, and one count of possession of marijuana.  Nelms moved to have the evidence found during the search of his vehicle suppressed, arguing that the search was beyond the scope of the warrant.  The trial court overruled Nelms’ motion and Nelms’ appealed.

Curtilage – the area immediately adjacent to a home which an individual reasonably expects is private – is regarded as part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.  Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170.  The Fourth Amendment applies to commercial premises, and extends to areas that can be equated with the curtilage of a private home.  State v. Trammel, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 17196, 1999 WL 22884 (Jan. 22, 1999).  This area can include the grounds surrounding the premises, if the premises fit within the traditional Fourth Amendment analysis, i.e., the area is one in which the owner has a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Id.

Surrounding curtilage is used in the warrant simply to describe the area around the building.  Id.  In search warrants, curtilage has been used to designate the area surrounding a commercial property, whether that area be a parking lot or fenced area.  Id.

Although police may be lawfully on the premises with a valid search warrant, the search is limited to those areas which may reasonably contain the items listed in the warrant.  State v. Halczyszak, 25 Ohio St.3d 301.  Any container found on the premises may be searched if it could contain the object of the search.  United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798.  Ohio appellate courts have recognized that such a warrant (authorizing the search of curtilage) extends to permit search of motor vehicles located within the curtilage of the premises.  State v. Ballez, 2010-Ohio-4720.  The assumption seems to be that a vehicle should be viewed in the same way as any other personal effects found on the described premises.  Id.

Federal circuit courts have held that a premises search warrant also covers a vehicle that appears to be owned or controlled by the premises owner.  See United States v. Gottschalk, 915 F.2d 1459; United States v. Patterson, 278 F.3d 315.  In cases of warrantless searches on motor vehicles there is no distinction among packages or containers based on ownership.  Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295.  If there is probable cause to search the vehicle, police may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.  Id.

Based on the above, the appellate court found that if there is probable cause to search commercial premises – which is the basis on which a warrant for the premises would issue – a vehicle found on the premises may be searched if police officers have reason to believe that the vehicle is associated with the premises.

With that, the appellate court held that Nelms’ vehicle was covered by the search warrant and upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Tough break for Nelms!  But a very interesting argument to say the least!

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