Limits on Privacy Expectation for Warrantless Entry by Police

A ruling by a California appellate court places some significant limits on people's expectation of privacy regarding police searches of residences. The bottom line is that a person who enters the residence of an acquaintance with the purpose of evading the police cannot claim a right to privacy that would bar warrantless entry by law enforcement.

The case of People v. Magee concerns Deemario Bomone Magee, who in 2008 was walking in a Vallejo neighborhood known by police to have narcotics trafficking. Police officers were on a stake out looking for signs of drug deals when they saw Magee - suspected by police of being a drug dealer - approach a car that was moving along the street. The officers left their unmarked vehicle to question Magee. When Magee saw the officers coming toward him, he ran into a nearby house, which was the residence of an acquaintance of Magee's. The officers followed Magee into the house and found him in the bathroom flushing down the toilet material that looked like cocaine base. After gathering evidence from Magee's vehicle, the police charged Magee with numerous violations, including possession for sale of cocaine base.

At trial, one of the residents of the house testified that Magee visited the house socially two or three times each week and that she had told Magee he could enter the house without knocking and use the bathroom. Magee and his attorneys argued that because of this understanding, Magee should have an expectation of privacy when he entered the house and that the police officers' entry and search should be held invalid. If the police wanted to talk with him, Magee argued, they needed to first obtain a warrant.

Though the trial court agreed with this reasoning, the appellate court disagreed. Because Magee entered the house after he saw the police coming toward him - and apparently for the purpose of evading them - he could not claim an expectation of privacy. He went into the house to get away from the police, not to socialize with house's occupants. Therefore, the police did not need to first obtain a warrant.

Search and seizure law in California can be complicated. If you have questions about a search conducted by law enforcement, call me at (916) 442-1200 for a free and confidential consultation.