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In Law, what is Curtilage?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Curtilage is an area immediately surrounding a dwelling which is considered part of the dwelling in the eyes of the law in many regions, despite the fact that it is actually outdoors. Especially in the United States, where the law is very specific about the right to privacy in the home, curtilage is an important legal concept. Legal definitions of this term vary from nation to nation, and if people are not sure about the specifics if a particular case, they should consult a lawyer for advice.

Generally, several characteristics must be met in order for an area to be considered curtilage. The first is that it must be enclosed in some way, as for example with hedges or fencing. It should be clear that the tenant is also taking steps to protect privacy within the outdoor area, such as building high fences, using trellising vines to block views, and so forth. Furthermore, it should be clear that the space is used for domestic activities, and thus could be considered an extension of a house.

The area must generally be immediately adjacent to a home in order to be viewed as curtilage. Structures within the curtilage such as outbuildings, sheds, guest houses, and so forth are also considered protected spaces because they are considered, in a sense, part of the home. This type of outdoor area differs from, for example, an open field which may be located next to a home, but is not considered part of the area protected by privacy laws.

In nations where private dwellings are given special privacy protections under the law, the curtilage is also protected. This becomes critically important for law enforcement because the curtilage is subject to search and seizure laws and other protections. If a law enforcement officer does not observe the law carefully, there is a potential that evidence gathered from the area will be considered “fruit of the poisonous tree,” meaning that it will not be accepted in court because it was collected illegally.

Curtilage laws are one good reason to fence property and to create clearly private areas around a home. By making it clear that a home has curtilage, people can access the protections associated with it. People should be aware that some of the laws in this area are very open to interpretation, and that different law enforcement agencies, judges, and legal authorities may have different views of disputes involving curtilage.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon266438 — On May 05, 2012

It appears that some cities zone residential areas prohibiting fencing of front yards to circumvent a homeowner from establishing "curtilage".

Some allow unattractive chain link fencing only 4' high. A 6' wooden privacy fence is prohibited except for corner houses.

A 6' wrought iron fence with spiked tops would discourage cops from simply jumping a 4' chain link fence.

Most residential homes have a driveway that doubles as a sidewalk too. A gate (rolling) would be difficult on a slope.

Any quotes from a Supreme Court case establishing curtilage without all the fencing and gates? --Thor

By strawCake — On Sep 22, 2011

@sunnySkys - Well, if the whole yard was fenced in then the back porch would be considered curtilage. I think the whole yard would be, in fact.

I'm glad this law exists though. It doesn't seem fair for police to be able to search a screened in back porch without a warrant. But people definitely shouldn't expect privacy in their backyard if it isn't fenced in our closed off in some other way. I think the idea of curtilage is right on the money.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 21, 2011

I would think that you would automatically have a right to privacy in your entire yard. I'm glad I stumbled upon this article. It seems like for a space to be curtilage it would need to be fenced in and right next to the house.

I suppose a screened in porch might be considered curtilage, but a regular porch maybe not.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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