By Dan Menken

Today, in the civil case of Covey v. Assessor of Ohio County, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Christopher and Lela Covey’s suit against government officials for entering the curtilage of their house without a search warrant.

Question of Fourth Amendment Protection From Unreasonable Government Intrusion

The Court was asked to decide whether government officials violated the Coveys’ Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable government intrusion when the government officials entered the curtilage of the Covey’s home in search of marijuana without a warrant.

Government Tax Assessor Relayed Information to Police Regarding Marijuana Plants

On October 21, 2009, a field deputy for the tax assessor of Ohio County, West Virginia, entered the Covey’s property to collect data to assess the value of the property for tax purposes. The tax assessor entered the Covey’s property despite seeing “No Trespassing” signs, which is against West Virginia law. When searching the property, the tax assessor found marijuana in the Covey’s walk-out basement patio. The tax assessor then contacted the police.

When the police arrived, they entered the curtilage of the Covey’s residence and proceeded to the area where the marijuana was located. As they were searching the property they encountered Mr. Covey. The officers detained Mr. Covey and continued their search. The officers then waited several hours to obtain a warrant to search the house. During that time, Mrs. Covey returned home and was warned that she would be arrested if she entered the house, after which she left the premises. Upon returning an hour later, Mrs. Covey was seized and interrogated. After the police received the search warrant, the Coveys were arrested and jailed overnight.

On March 30, 2010, Mr. Covey pleaded guilty in state court to manufacturing marijuana in exchange for the government’s promise that they would not initiate prosecution against Mrs. Covey. He was sentenced to home confinement for a period of not less than one year and not more than five years. On October 20, 2011, the Coveys brought this suit pro se. The claims, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Bivens, alleged that several defendants violated the Coveys’ Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an unreasonable search. The district court dismissed the Coveys’ claim concluding that none of the defendants violated the Fourth Amendment. This appeal followed.

Fourth Amendment Protects Curtilage of Home

The Court reviewed the district court’s grant of a motion to dismiss de novo. To prevail on a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal. A claim is plausible if “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

According to Oliver v. United States (1984), the Fourth Amendment protects homes and the “land immediately surrounding and associated” with homes, known as curtilage, from unreasonable government intrusions. Probable cause is the appropriate standard for searches of the curtilage and warrantless searches of curtilage is unreasonable.   The knock-and-talk exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement allows an officer, without a warrant, to approach a home and knock on the door, just as any ordinary citizen could do. An officer may bypass the front door when circumstances reasonably indicate the officer might find the homeowner elsewhere on the property. The right to knock and talk does not entail a right to conduct a general investigation on a home’s curtilage.

The Complaint Presented Plausible Claims For Violations of the Fourth Amendment

Properly construed in the Coveys’ favor, the complaint alleges that the officers saw Mr. Covey only after they entered the curtilage. Thus, applying the Rule 12(b)(6) standard, the Court found that the Coveys plausibly alleged that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by entering and searching the curtilage of their home without warrant. The district court erred by accepting the officers account of events, in which they stated that they saw Mr. Covey prior to entering the curtilage.

Turning to the tax assessor, the Court believed that his entering of the property, although illegal, was not a per se violation of the Fourth Amendment. In this case, the Court believed that the governmental interest in the search for tax purposes was minimal, while the Covey’s privacy interest is significant. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that the Coveys pleaded a plausible claim that the tax assessor conducted an unreasonable search of their home and curtilage.

Defendants’ Affirmative Defenses

According to Ashcroft v. al-Kidd (2011) qualified immunity “shields federal and state officials form money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct. As to the police officers, the Court stated that they should be aware that a warrantless search of the home, absent consent or exigency, is presumptively unconstitutional. Additionally, the Court noted that Fourth Circuit has, for over a decade, recognized that the curtilage of the home is entitled to Fourth Amendment protection. The Court felt that the tax assessor presented a closer case. Because there was no case law that spoke to a similar set of facts, and the tax assessor should have been aware that he was violating a Constitutional right by searching the property, the Court ruled that the tax assessor was not entitled to qualified immunity.

Finally, the defendants claimed that the Coveys’ § 1983 and Bivens claims are barred by Heck v. Humphrey (1994). There are two requirements for Heck to bar the Coveys’ claims. First, “a judgment in favor of the plaintiff [must] necessarily imply the invalidity of [a plaintiff’s] conviction or sentence.” Second, the claim must be brought by a claimant who is either (i) currently in custody or (ii) no longer in custody because the sentence has been served, but nevertheless could have practicably sought habeas relief while in custody. The court concluded that Mr. Covey’s claims did not necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction and thus are not necessarily barred by Heck. The Court remanded the district court for further analysis under Heck.

Reversed and Remanded

Thus, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.