Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Police Officers' Warrantless Entry Onto Residential Property, Despite "No Trespassing" Signs

Friday, April 7, 2017

A majority of the Supreme Court has ruled that, despite the existence of “no trespassing” signs near an unobstructed driveway, police officers’ warrantless entry onto the defendant’s property was constitutionally permissible.

This matter arose when two investigators went to a different residence after receiving information regarding a pseudoephedrine purchase.  One of the individuals at that residence informed the officers that he had given the pills to the defendant, who lived next door and who was in the process of using them to produce methamphetamine.  The officers then left that residence and drove down the defendant’s unobstructed driveway and walked up to his front porch.  Upon smelling the odor of the manufacture of methamphetamine when the defendant opened his door, the officers requested consent to enter the residence.  When the defendant denied consent, the officers forced entry and discovered an active methamphetamine lab, several inactive labs, various items commonly associated with methamphetamine manufacture, and several guns.

Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless entry onto his property, claiming that, because he had posted “No Trespassing” signs  near his driveway, the officers’ entry onto the property without a warrant violated both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions.  The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.  The defendant then proceeded to trial and was convicted by a jury of resisting arrest, promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine, initiating the manufacture of methamphetamine, and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.

The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s application for permission to appeal from the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision affirming the trial court judgments in order to consider the legality of the police officers’ warrantless entry onto the defendant’s property.

In the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, the Court determined that the defendant “failed to demonstrate that he had a reasonable expectation that ordinary citizens would not occasionally enter his property by walking or driving up his driveway and approaching his front door to talk with him ‘for all the many reasons that people knock on front doors.’”  Therefore, the Court held, the police officers’ warrantless entry did not violate the United States or Tennessee Constitutions. 

Justice Sharon G. Lee dissented from the Court’s decision.  She concluded that the police had no right to ignore the multiple “No Trespassing” signs Mr. Christensen posted at the entrance to his driveway and enter the area around his home without first getting a warrant.  As a result, the search of Mr. Christensen’s home violated his rights under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions.  Justice Lee wrote that citizens should not have to barricade their homes with a fence and a closed gate, perhaps even a locked gate, to protect their constitutional rights.  In Justice Lee’s view, the ability to prevent the public, including the police, from entering one’s home and the land around it should be available to all citizens. 

To read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. James Robert Christensen, Jr., authored by Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, and the dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.

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