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Hart v. Myers

ELR Citation: 32 ELR 20474
Nos. No. 3:97 CV 2574 (SRU), 183 F. Supp. 2d 512/(D. Conn., 01/23/2002)

The court holds that although conservation officers conducted a search and seizure without a warrant and within the curtilage of individuals' home, the officers enjoyed qualified immunity. The individuals own an undeveloped tract of 50 acres that abuts a state park in which no hunting is allowed. The property consists of mostly wooded area, but also contains a clearing with a small cabin, a fire pit, outhouses, and a hangpole about 25 yards from the cabin used to hang deer carcasses. While on the job near the individuals' property, the officers heard rifle shots and upon investigation found the individuals with untagged dead deer. The officers questioned the individuals, the entire time remaining near the hangpole. After the questioning, the officers charged them with statutory violations and seized the dead deer and two guns. The individuals then filed suit claiming that the officers were within the curtilage of the individuals' home and therefore needed probable cause and a warrant for the search, seizure, and arrests. The court first holds that under the circumstances, the officers did not produce sufficient evidence to eliminate a genuine issue of material fact whether the area around the hangpole is within the curtilage of the individuals' cabin. The hangpole is close enough to the cabin to support an inference that it should be treated as part of the home; the woods surrounding the structure serve as a natural enclosure of the clearing; the uses of the hangpole area could be found to be sufficiently associated with domestic life and the privacies of the home in the camp-like setting at issue here; and although the individuals did not take steps to protect the area from observation by people passing by, their lack of effort would not preclude reasonable jurors from finding that the hangpole stood within the curtilage around the structure. The court, however, holds that even though reasonable jurors could conclude that the officers' activities took place within the curtilage of the home, the officers enjoyed qualified immunity. The officers did not take any actions that were unreasonable in light of established law. Upon entrance to the clearing, there was no indication that the hangpole was within the curtilage of the home. Additionally, it was objectively reasonable for the officers to believe that the area they entered was not curtilage and that they were therefore entitled to enter and search it without probable cause and a warrant. Thus, the officers' motion for summary judgment was granted.

The full text of this decision is available from ELR (22 pp., ELR Order No. L-441).

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Angelica N. Papastavros-Corbo
Williams & Pattis
51 Elm St., New Haven CT 06510
(203) 562-9931

Counsel for Defendants
Rick Titelman
Department of Environmental Protection
165 Capitol Ave., Hartford CT 06106
(860) 424-3000