"No Trespassing” signs, by themselves, do not prevent officers from conducting a "knock and talk" (requesting consent to search) at a private residence.
Police received a tip that Ralph Carloss, a convicted felon, was in possession of a firearm and selling methamphetamine. Officers went to the single-family home where Carloss was staying. A “No Trespassing” sign was on a wooden post beside the driveway, a “Private Property No Trespassing” sign was tacked to a tree in the side yard, and “Posted Private Property Hunting, Fishing, Trapping or Trespassing for Any Purpose Is Strictly Forbidden Violators Will Be Prosecuted” signs were on a pole in the front yard and on the front door.
When officers went to the home to speak with Carloss, they drove into the driveway, parked, went to the front door, and knocked for several minutes. A woman came out the back door of the house, followed by Carloss shortly thereafter, and both spoke with the officers. Carloss permitted the officers to follow him into the home, and through a room Carloss identified as his, so Carloss could ask the homeowner whether he consented to a search of the home. Upon entry, officers saw drug paraphernalia and white powder residue that appeared to be methamphetamine.
After the homeowner denied consent to search the house, officers obtained a search warrant based on what they saw in Carloss’ room. During execution of the warrant, officers found “multiple methamphetamine labs” and lab components, a loaded shotgun, two blasting caps, ammunition, and other drug paraphernalia. Carloss' motion to suppress the drug evidence was denied and he entered a conditional plea for conspiring to possess pseudoephedrine. He then appealed the suppression ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
Among other issues in his appeal, Carloss claimed the officers violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures when they approached his home and knocked on the front door, despite the “No Trespassing” signs posted around the home. The drug evidence was therefore fruit of the poisonous tree, he argued.
Carloss argued to the appellate court that the “No Trespassing” signs around the home revoked the implied license the public had to approach the house and to knock on the front door.
Writing separately, two of the Tenth Circuit’s three-judge panel disagreed with Carloss. While differing somewhat in their analysis, both judges concluded that the “No Trespassing” signs placed about Carloss’ home would not have conveyed to an objective officer that he could not go to the front door and knock, seeking consensual conversation with Carloss.
Both judges reasoned that the mere presence of a “No Trespassing” sign is insufficient to convey to an objective officer, or member of the public (for example, a mailman or a FedEx driver), that he cannot go to the front door and knock.
Moreover, the lead opinion said, the yard was an “open field” and not curtilage, and it is well-established that “No Trespassing” signs will not prevent an officer from entering privately owned “open fields.” (I will explain these two legal concepts in more depth in a future post but for our purposes today, "curtilage" is the "privacy zone" close to and around a residence; "open fields" are the rest of the property outside the curtilage.) Further, the court said the sign on Carloss’ front door forbidding certain recreational activities was ambiguous and did not clearly revoke the implied license extended to members of the public to enter the home’s curtilage and to knock on the front door. Rather, that sign could be read to have meant that that the listed recreational activities would not be allowed on the property generally.
Additionally, the concurring opinion noted the absence of any fence or other physical obstruction to remove ambiguity from the “No Trespassing” signs to make clear that visitors were not allowed, noting that “numerosity alone does not eliminate the ambiguity.”
Thus, a majority of the appellate court held the four “No Trespassing” signs around were insufficient to revoke the implied license for officers to attempt a “knock and talk” at Carloss’ residence. For this and other reasons addressed in the lead opinion, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to deny Carloss’ motion to suppress.
Although this is a federal case from another circuit, had this case been heard in a California state court, I believe a similar result would have occurred.
So, what is the "take away" from this decision? One, No Trespassing signs don't prevent the police from coming and knocking on your door. Two, if there are drugs and drug paraphernalia, or any other kind of contraband, in your house, don't be inviting the police inside! Better yet, even if you "have nothing to hide," don't just give away your constitutional rights. Politely tell the police that if they want to come in, they should go obtain a warrant.
Rebecca Ocain has been a criminal law trial attorney for over fourteen years.