In yet another victory for Fourth Amendment advocates, the Supreme Court on May 29, 2018 ruled against a warrantless search and examination of motorcycle under a tarp in the driveway of a home. In the matter of Ryan Austin Collins vs. Virginia, No. 16-1027, the Court in a 8-1 decision reversed the lower court’s decision which upheld a warrantless search of motorcycle under the so-called automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.
An orange and black motorcycle was believed to have been stolen and in the possession of Mr. Collins. Apparently Mr. Collins was proud of his accomplishment and posted photos of the stolen motorcycle parked in his driveway on his Facebook profile. The police discovered the photos on Mr. Collins’ Facebook profile, drove to his house and observed what appeared to be the motorcycle under a tarp parked in Mr. Collin’s driveway. The arresting police officer acting without a search warrant, walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp, confirmed that it was the stolen motorcycle, returned the tarp, and waited for Mr. Collins to return.
Upon his return Mr. Collins was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property. At trial, Mr. Collins sought to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the police had violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they had trespassed on Mr. Collins’s house curtilage (driveway) to conduct a warrantless search. Mr. Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property. The conviction was affirmed by the Virginia Court of Appeals who found “numerous exigencies justified both the entry onto the property and the moving of the tarp to view the motorcycle and record its identification number.” The Virginia Supreme Court also affirmed the conviction holding that the warrantless search was justified under the so-called automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment. The State Supreme Court held that the police officer had probable cause to believe that the motorcycle was contraband, and that the warrantless search was justified.
The central question before the Supreme Court was whether the so-called automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment, which allows the police certain latitude to search vehicles on public streets without a warrant, also allows the police to walk up a driveway without a warrant and search a vehicle parked in the area near a house.
The so-called automobile exception, first articulated in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), allows police to search a car without a warrant if the car is “readily mobile” and they have probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of a crime.
The Court began its Fourth Amendment discussion by examining the intersecting case law of the so-called automobile exception to the warrant requirement with case law extending the protection against warrantless searches to the curtilage of a home. The “curtilage” of a home being the area immediately surrounding the house, where residents expect privacy.
In its near unanimous opinion written by Justus Sonia Sotomayor, the Court held that the driveway where Mr. Collins’ motorcycle was parked was part of the curtilage protected by the Fourth Amendment. Justice Sotomayor further wrote, “To allow an officer to rely on the automobile exception to gain entry to a house or its curtilage for the purpose of conducting a vehicle search would unmoor the exception from its justifications, render hollow the Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage, and transform what was meant to be an exception into a tool with far broader application,”
The court explained that the justification for the automobile exception doesn’t consider a resident’s privacy interest in his home and its curtilage at all; rather, the rationale rests on the twin ideas that cars can easily be moved and are subject to regulation simply by virtue of being on the roads.
The stated that there are no Supreme Court’s cases that indicates the automobile exception allows a police officer to enter the home or its curtilage without a warrant to search a vehicle – if anything, the court has emphasized the need to treat “automobiles differently from houses.”
The sole dissent in the case was filed by Justice Samuel Alito, who stated that “The Fourth Amendment prohibits ‘unreasonable’ searches,” and that, “What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable.”