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8th Circuit: yard sign may 'invite' police to search your home

In a somewhat surprising ruling, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which includes Iowa, recently held that an otherwise unlawful police search was legal because the defendant had a “for sale” sign on his lawn. A Kansas City man has now been convicted of illegally possessing a shotgun after a felony conviction -- all because he wanted to sell a motorcycle.

The situation arose when the man bought two vehicles, a motorcycle and an Oldsmobile, for resale. As it turned out, both vehicles had been reported stolen. There is no evidence that the defendant was aware of that, and he was not charged with possession of stolen property.

The police were called to his home in June 2010 because the prior owner of the motorcycle happened to notice a sign on the defendant’s fence advertising the bike for sale. The motorcycle was visible inside a fenced-in yard with “beware of dog” and “for sale” signs posted.

When the officers arrived, they entered the defendant’s fenced-in yard to check the vehicle identification number on the motorcycle. They confirmed it was the missing vehicle and found that the Oldsmobile was also stolen.

Shortly afterward, the defendant arrived home. He explained that he did not know the two vehicles were stolen and said he had the paperwork to show he had bought them from a reputable source. However, when the cops learned the man had a criminal record including several felony convictions on his record, they arrested him.

At that point, they did call for a warrant -- to search the defendant’s home. Inside, they found a shotgun, which the man was not entitled to possess because of his felony convictions. Ultimately, he pled guilty to possessing a firearm after a felony conviction, but he reserved the right to challenge the police searches on appeal.

Unfortunately, the 8th Circuit ruled against him. Although his yard was fenced in and had the “beware of dog” sign, the court decided that since he had displayed the two vehicles in the yard and put a sign up advertising the sale he had essentially invited passersby to enter his yard. If the public can go in, the court reasoned, the cops can, too.

This ruling stands in some contrast to previous cases in which courts have held police to a high standard before they can intrude into the private areas of someone’s property without a warrant. Hopefully, the situation is unusual enough that the ruling won’t apply to people who take care not to invite the public (or the police) to wander their property.

Source: Kansas City Star, "‘For Sale’ sign bought KC man 34 months in jail," Mark Morris, July 11, 2013

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