Last time I wrote a letter to the Faribault County Register editor, I criticized Chuck Hunt himself for using the “get off my lawn” philosophy to justify his argument against the behavior of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton following his Super Bowl loss. Today, I’d now like to say the same to the Blue Earth Police Department. Get off my lawn.
The Blue Earth Police Department has tasked itself with measuring the length of grass on private property to ensure that it complies with the city’s zoning laws. Previous measures failed because, perhaps, people have a right to decide what to do with their personal property.
Although the police and the city council justify the new initiative “to keep the city looking nice,” according to KEYC, it is an insidious intrusion upon the personal privacy that is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. As Thomas Jefferson said, the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and for the government, like the grass, to grow.
Citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy within their homes under the Fourth Amendment. Police cannot enter a home without a judge’s signature on a warrant, which is based on specific and articulable facts by law enforcement that a crime is currently being committed. What goes on inside the home is personal business, but what happens in a person’s yard is less protected.
The 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case of United States v. Chadwick gives police an exception to the Fourth Amendment. Under Chadwick, police can search the trash left on a person’s curb because any person could reasonably rummage through it. Further, police can search or issue citations for areas that are within public view without a warrant.
If the police saw what they believe to be a reported stolen vehicle on private property, they could reasonably enter that property without a warrant to inspect the vehicle. Likewise, if police saw trash scattered across a person’s yard, they could issue a violation without a warrant because the trash is visible from the street. A court, in turn, would likely rule that the length of grass in a person’s yard under a zoning law would also apply to the Chadwick ruling.
However, the right of police to enter private property without a warrant to measure the grass could give them a reason to inspect for other crimes. Hypothetically, let’s say Blue Earth Police enter private property because they believe the grass in the yard is too long, and, in turn, they suspect another crime is being committed based on a strange smell, suggestive song lyrics, or loud voices emanating from the home. Under the law, the police could obtain a warrant to search the home based on, initially, their reasonable suspicion to measure the length of the grass.
This initiative by the Blue Earth Police Department puts every citizen in a precarious position of either using their home within their rights or avoiding a search based on the length of the grass in their lawn. Do we as citizens chose to live richly within our home appraisal in exchange for our personal right to privacy? The long arm of the law hopes so.
Brad Omland is a legal writer and radio producer. Follow him on Twitter: @bradradio.