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Exigent Case Analysis

There are two plausible ways to read this decision: it supports a broad right of officers to enter the garages of suspected drunk drivers who just arrived home; or it is easily distinguishable in all but the most extreme cases.

The circuit court found, and the court of appeals agreed, that, “as long as the driver was in the driver’s position, [he] could start the car and commence driving again.”

This is an exigent circumstance which will be present in all cases, and would support the former interpretation.

However, the latter interpretation would seem to be the sounder, notwithstanding this ever-present circumstance.

The court referred to its decision in the case as “difficult.” This would suggest that in less extreme cases, a drunk driver sitting in his car in his garage is not an exigent circumstance.

In this case, Leutenegger took three minutes just to get to his car, had difficulty starting it, drove only three miles an hour down the road, honked and stopped for a car a block away, almost hit a sign, and pulled out directly in front of traffic. When he finally arrived home, he remained in his vehicle inexplicably.

Leutenegger’s blood-alcohol content in this case was .28%, and the facts described are consistent with a BAC that high.

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Ultimately, however, if the case at bar is a “difficult” one, notwithstanding the extreme degree of intoxication suggested by both the citizen’s report and the officer’s observation, it is reasonable to conclude that most drunk drivers sitting in their cars in their garage would not constitute an exigent circumstance and would not justify a warrantless entry.

As a final note, the court briefly touched on the question whether the garage constituted part of the curtilage of Leutenegger’s home, although the State did not contest that issue.

Citing cases from other jurisdictions, the court found that they consistently hold that an attached garage is part of the curtilage. However, the court cautioned, “such determinations are fact specific and, in a particular case, a house and attached garage may be situated such that entry through an open garage door to an ‘exterior’ house door within the garage may appear to be the least intrusive means of establishing contact with an occupant. Under such circumstances, an attached garage might be considered non-curtilage for the limited purpose of making contact with an occupant, similar to some porches. See United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 42 (1976); State v. Potter, 72 S.W.3d 307, 313-14 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002).”

– David Ziemer

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David Ziemer can be reached by email.

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