Two DNR wardens suspected Quinlan had been engaging in some illegal hunting practices. They approached his cabin in plain clothes and in an unmarked truck. Quinlan’s mother was outside; the wardens identified themselves and said they wanted to talk to Quinlan. The mother said he was home and pointed to the cabin. When the wardens knocked on the door Quinlan’s girlfriend, who one warden recognized, responded “yeah” when asked if they could come in. Within three seconds Quinlan, who was inside, also said it was alright for the wardens to be there. The wardens left after some conversation and Quinlan was eventually cited for violations.
On appeal Quinlan argues the wardens violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his cabin on his girlfriend’s say-so. The court of appeals disagrees, but first disposes with the circuit court’s and the state’s position that the interaction was valid as a “knock and talk”:
A “knock and talk” is an investigative technique that “law enforcement may use in entering one’s constitutionally-protected curtilage.” State v. Wilson, 2022 WI 77, ¶21, 404 Wis. 2d 623, 982 N.W.2d 67. “Curtilage” is the constitutionally protected area “immediately surrounding and associated with the home.” Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 180 (1984); State v. Martwick, 2000 WI 5, ¶26, 231 Wis. 2d 801, 604 N.W.2d 552. “A ‘knock and talk’ investigation is not a search but instead is an investigative technique premised on the implicit license that a visitor, or neighbor, would have with regard to entering one’s curtilage.” Wilson, 404 Wis. 2d 623, ¶21.
The State cites no legal authority extending the “knock and talk” concept to entry into one’s home from the curtilage.
But, says the court, the officers had reason to believe that Quinlan’s girlfriend had the authority to let people in to the cabin she was occupying:
Pertinent here, “[p]olice may conduct a warrantless search when authorized consent has been given, which can include consent from someone who is not the subject of the search—a third party.” State v. Torres, 2018 WI App 23, ¶17, 381 Wis. 2d 268, 911 N.W.2d 388 (citing State v. Tomlinson, 2002 WI 91, ¶22, 254 Wis. 2d 502, 648 N.W.2d 367). “For such [third party] consent to be valid, the third party must ‘possess common authority over or other sufficient relationship to the premises or effects sought to be inspected.’” Torres, 381 Wis. 2d 268, ¶17 (quoting United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 171, (1974)).
The court then quotes the oft-quoted Matlock passage saying such authority “does not rest upon the law of property … but rests rather on mutual use of the property by persons generally having joint access or control for most purposes” such that it’s reasonable to imagine any of them might let some other person inside. (¶13). And even if it turns out the person who let the police in was not a co-occupant or joint user, there is no suppression if the officers had reason to believe he or she was. This is called the “apparent authority” doctrine. Here,
the warden recognized the woman who answered the door of the cabin as Quinlan’s girlfriend, the same woman he had seen featured in videos that Quinlan posted online. Quinlan’s mother had also, moments earlier, said that Quinlan was in the dwelling with “his girlfriend.”…
The wardens also could have reasonably believed that Quinlan’s girlfriend had the authority to consent to their entry into the cabin based on the totality of the circumstances. Those circumstances include that they knew of her “social ties” to Quinlan and his mother through her romantic relationship with Quinlan. See Sobczak, 347 Wis. 2d 724, ¶20 (recognizing that a romantic relationship is a kind of “social tie” that gives rise to expectations supporting a reasonable belief that a person “has the constitutional authority to invite law enforcement into the home of another”). Further, when the wardens stepped into the one-room cabin, Quinlan was immediately present and available to speak, but did not then, or at any point after the wardens entered the cabin, object to them entering or being in the cabin…. In addition, Quinlan’s girlfriend did not ask Quinlan or Quinlan’s mother for permission to let the wardens in or hesitate to say “yeah” when the warden asked to enter.