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Is Your Door Lock Protected By The Fourth Amendment?

Seemingly good detective work sometimes crosses a line. Police must follow leads and clues and hunches to solve crimes, but they also must follow the law.

A federal appeals court recently ruled that police went too far when they inserted a key into a door to determine if their suspect lived there. The government argued that it was a lawful investigative tactic. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that trying the lock was an unlawful search under the Fourth Amendment.

Police used suspect’s own keys as basis for a search warrant

Police officers in Massachusetts found a set of keys on a man they arrested outside an apartment building. The investigators then tried the keys in three apartment doors until they found one that fit. That investigative “bingo” was used to obtain a warrant to search the apartment unit. Upon executing the warrant, police recovered drugs, a gun and other evidence of criminal activity.

The defense moved to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search, but the trial court denied the motion. The man was convicted at trial of several drug offenses plus a charge of felon in possession of a firearm, resulting in a mandatory 15-year prison term. He appealed the conviction and sentence.

In United States v. Yrvens Bain , the First Circuit declared that police violated the Fourth Amendment by testing his key in the lock. The court said the act constituted a search, and that the search was unlawful because it breached the privacy of the resident(s). The judges likened the intrusion to going door-to-door with drug-sniffing dogs to fish for incriminating evidence.

A legal victory … sort of

Although the appeals court declared that a door lock is protected under the Fourth Amendment, it did not reverse the conviction. The First Circuit upheld the incriminating evidence as obtained in good faith despite the flaws in the underlying warrant. The “vindication” did not ultimately help the defendant in his case, but the ruling will bolster future defenses when police illegally penetrate the “curtilage” of a citizen’s residence.

The Fourth Amendment is our most powerful defense against unreasonable searches, seizures and arrests. Police and prosecutors routinely overstep their bounds, perhaps in good faith but sometimes in defiant disregard for the constitutional rights of the accused.