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Montana Supreme Court: Renter’s Privacy Not Diminished By Landlord’s Probationary Status

 

by Anthony Accurso

The Supreme Court of the State of Montana held that a defendant’s rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and invasions of privacy were violated when his landlord’s probation officer searched his rented space.

Stephen Thomas was caring for his sick wife when they rented the outbuilding on Parischere (Paris) Hughes’ property in 2016. Thomas paid $400 per month to rent and live in the space with all of his belongings. Because the outbuilding did not have “running water, plumbing, a bathroom, or kitchen facilities,” Thomas used these facilities in Paris’ home. When he was not there, he kept a lock on the door to his space.

Prior to moving in, Thomas was made aware that Paris was on probation. Her probation officer, Gen Stasiak, was made aware of and approved the rental agreement.

Paris missed two drug/alcohol screenings, one each on December 16 and 19, and Stasiak suspected she had relapsed. Stasiak invoked a condition of her probation that states in relevant part that, “all places in the defendant’s residence where the defendant has access are subject to [warrantless] search, even those private rooms of other persons with whom the defendant resides, unless those rooms are locked and the defendant does not have access to those rooms.”

When law enforcement arrived, Thomas came out to meet them, leaving his space unsecured. He was told to sit on the couch in the main home while the search was performed. Stasiak, finding the outbuilding Thomas was renting unsecured, searched it and found a “sort of family relic,” a very old bottle of “Ipecac and opium powder,” as well as some marijuana and paraphernalia. Thomas asserted that he never authorized the search of his space.

Thomas was charged and convicted for criminal possession of a dangerous drug on the basis of the opium bottle. His motion to suppress the evidence failed, and he was subsequently convicted. He appealed, arguing that his right to privacy was violated during the search.

The Montana Supreme Court recognizes that both the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article II Section 11 of the state constitution protect citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. Article II, Section 10 goes further, stating the “right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.” This means the “range of searches which may be conducted pursuant to Montana’s Constitution is narrower” than those that are lawful under the U.S. Constitution. State v. Goetz, 191 P.3d 489 (Mont. 2008).

There are exceptions to these rights, but the “State [must] prove that one of the exceptions provided under our search and seizure jurisprudence applies.” State v. Therriault, 14 P.3d 444 (Mont. 2000).

In denying the suppression motion, the district court determined Paris and Thomas were roommates largely because Thomas regularly accessed Paris’ living space. The Supreme Court ruled this an error because “undisputed evidence established an arms-length rental arrangement” that provided Thomas “exclusive control over the outbuilding as his primary residence.” Further, Stasiak knew about the rental agreement and that Paris had no access to the outbuilding as part of the agreement. So while the terms of her probation reduced Paris’ right to privacy in her person and residence, they “did not govern Thomas,” according to the Court.

Also, Thomas kept the outbuilding locked, which further prevented Paris from accessing it. It was only because he was responding to law enforcement that he left it unsecured.

The district court used this fact and applied State v. Finley, 260 P.3d 175 (Mont. 2011) (search of a safe in Finley and his wife’s bedroom was justified where she was on probation and safe was open and unlocked) in denying Thomas’ motion. The Supreme Court ruled Finley distinguishable because Paris and Thomas were not married and sharing a living space, unlike the couple in Finley.

Thus, the Court ruled that Thomas had a right to be free from warrantless searches of his living space regardless of Paris’ probationary status. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s suppression ruling and ordered the criminal complaint dismissed with prejudice. See State v. Thomas, 471 P.3d 733 (Mont. 2020). 

Related legal case

State v. Thomas

 

 

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