But we deal here not with a front porch (Mr. Habich’s house does not have one) or hidden-from-view curtilage. Rather, Dep. Mittlestat and the Charger were both on the driveway, which, depending on the driveway’s particularities, has been viewed as outside the curtilage.

 

Habich v. Wayne County, Michigan

No. 22 – 1517

Sixth Circuit Appellate Court

April 12, 2023

On July 20, 2020 Wayne County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Spaulding observed what appeared to be an unmarked police vehicle—a Dodge Charger—flash its police-style lights at him; it then drove away after Spaulding showed his badge to the driver. Spaulding called dispatch about the incident and learned that the Charger was not licensed with any law enforcement agency.

This prompted an investigation and, two days later on July 22, 2020, Sheriff’s Deputy John Wojciechowski located the Charger parked at 11563 Olive Street, Romulus, Michigan in the driveway, visible from and facing the street.

Mr. Eugene Habich lived at 11563 Olive Street, Romulus, Michigan and his Dodge Charger was impounded from his driveway.  Mr. Habich sued the officers and the court granted the officers with Qualified Immunity.  But were the officers lawful to tow Mr. Habich’s vehicle used in a misdemeanor from his driveway?

Specifically, the Charger was parked even with the front of the house, about three or four feet from the house’s side. The Charger’s police- style pushbar and lights were clearly visible from the street.

Mr. Habich’s Dodge Charger is pictured here in the driveway and is the white car, which was observed from Olive Street.  Was the Charger in the driveway part of the curtilage?  This photo was obtained from the court filings via Pacer.

Deputy Wojciechowski and Deputy Christopher Mittlestat (who arrived as a backup) approached the driveway where Mr. Eugene Habich was working on another vehicle parked behind the Charger. Mr. Habich admitted to them that he flashed the Charger’s police-style lights at a vehicle on the highway. While the deputies talked with Mr. Habich, Dep. Mittlestat walked between the Charger and the house to the Charger’s rear and confirmed the Charger’s license plate matched the one Dep. Spaulding saw. The house did not have a front door, so Dep. Mittlestat’s route took him near the main door on the side of the house accessible from the driveway near the Charger. The deputies then impounded the Charger without a warrant and “held” it “for investigative purposes.”

Mr. Habich sued Wayne County, Dep. Mittlestat, and Dep. Wojciechowski, alleging that they violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by searching and seizing the Charger without a warrant. The district court concluded that the Charger was outside the curtilage of the home and in plain view, which permitted its search and seizure without a warrant, and therefore granted summary judgment in defendants’ favor. Mr. Habich appeals.

Appeal

The focus of this appeal is Dep. Mittlestat’s seizure of the Charger. The district court concluded that Mr. Habich failed to demonstrate a violation of a constitutional right, which we review de novo. But we need not decide whether Dep. Mittlestat unconstitutionally seized the Charger because Mr. Habich has not shown that Dep. Mittlestat violated a clearly established right when he did so.

Analysis

Habich directs our attention to Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013), and Morgan v. Fairfield Cnty., 903 F.3d 553 (6th Cir. 2018), to meet his burden. But neither case shows that Mittlestat violated a clearly established right when he seized the Charger.

In Jardines, the Supreme Court held that bringing a drug-sniffing dog on the defendant’s front porch without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. front porch, the Court concluded, was a “classic exemplar” of the curtilage. Morgan similarly involved curtilage: the sides of a house and a backyard not visible to neighbors or from the road. But we deal here not with a front porch (Mr. Habich’s house does not have one) or hidden-from-view curtilage. Rather, Dep. Mittlestat and the Charger were both on the driveway, which, depending on the driveway’s particularities, has been viewed as outside the curtilage.

Holding

[W]e affirm the judgment of the district court.

Postscript

Footnote #1: Dep. Wojciechowski died during this litigation on December 21, 2021, and is not a party to this appeal.

Information for this article was obtained from Habich v. Wayne County, Michigan, No. 22 – 1517 and the case documents filed by Mr. Habich obtained through Pacer.

This case was issued by the Sixth Circuit Appellate Court and is binding in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

Lessons Learned:

  1. This case focused on whether the deputies were entitled to Qualified Immunity. The Sixth Circuit Appellate Court determined that the deputies and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department were entitled to Qualified Immunity. This was based on the legal determination that there was no case similar that placed the deputies on notice that their actions were unconstitutional.  The Sixth Circuit Appellate Court also determined that the deputies were lawful in impounding the suspect’s vehicle from the driveway without a warrant – “But we deal here not with a front porch (Mr. Habich’s house does not have one) or hidden-from-view curtilage. Rather, Dep. Mittlestat and the Charger were both on the driveway, which, depending on the driveway’s particularities, has been viewed as outside the curtilage.”.  When law enforcement wants to impound a vehicle from a private driveway it is always best to obtain a search warrant.
  2. Sadly, Deputy John Wojciechowski died of Covid 19 prior to the conclusion of this case. This is yet another tragic example that there are many threats to front line law enforcement officers.

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