The United States Supreme Court has decided the case of Collins v. Virginia, holding that police need a search warrant to search a person’s automobile when it is parked in the driveway or other “curtilage” of a person’s home. This is an important decision that limits the ability of police to search your house and the surrounding areas without a search warrant pursuant to the “Automobile Exception” to the Fourth Amendment.
The Facts of Collins v. Virginia
On an unspecified date, an Albemarle County, VA Police Officer observed the driver of an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame committing a traffic infraction. This driver eluded the officer’s attempt to stop him. A few weeks later, a different officer within the same department encountered an individual operating a similar motorcycle traveling above the speed limit. This officer was also not able to stop this individual.
The officers subsequently compared notes and concluded that it was the same individual who got away on each date. Additionally, the officers were able to determine that the motorcycle was stolen and in the possession of the defendant. The police then searched the defendant’s Facebook account and saw pictures of the motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house. Through additional investigation, the officers were able to determine the address of the house and that the house belonged to the defendant’s girlfriend.
One of the officers then went to this house and saw what appeared to be a motorcycle under a white tarp. The officer did not have a search warrant, but he exited his car and went to the house. From there, he then went onto the driveway, lifted the tarp, and saw what appeared to be the motorcycle that had escaped police on the two previous occasions. The officer ran the license plate and VIN for the motorcycle and found that it had been reported stolen. The officer took a photograph of the motorcycle and then put the tarp back on the motorcycle. The officer then left the property and returned to his car to wait for the defendant. The defendant returned home shortly thereafter. The officer then walked up to the house and knocked on the door. The defendant answered the door and agreed to speak with the officer. The defendant promptly admitted that the motorcycle belonged to him and that he had purchased it without a title. The officer arrested him.
State prosecutors charged the defendant with receiving stolen property. The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress to suppress the evidence that the officer obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle. The defendant argued that the officer had trespassed on the curtilage of his property in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied his motion to suppress. The defendant then appealed. Both the Court of Appeals of Virginia and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision on the Automobile Exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The defendant then petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear the case which the Court granted certiorari.
What is the Automobile Exception to the Warrant Requirement of the Fourth Amendment?
The Automobile Exception to the Fourth Amendment has existed for nearly a hundred years. In essence, the Automobile Exception is judge-made law that allows police to search an automobile without a search warrant, so long as there was probable cause to justify the search. This exception was first articulated in Carroll v. United States, a 1925 Supreme Court decision that upheld a warrantless search and seizure of an automobile.
In Carroll, the Supreme Court reasoned that law enforcement should not be required to obtain a search warrant in order to search a car because a car is mobile and could leave the scene by the time an officer obtained a warrant. In subsequent years, the Supreme Court solidified the Automobile Exception, but it also adopted additional rationales to justify these warrantless searches. Specifically, the Court has also held that because automobiles are so highly regulated, a warrant is not needed. This was the Court’s justification for approving of the police acting without a warrant in cases such as California v. Carney and South Dakota v. Opperman. For a long time, Pennsylvania did not permit the Automobile Exception. However, this changed in 2014, when a plurality of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided the case of Commonwealth v. Gary. Gary eliminated the requirement that police obtain a search warrant before searching an automobile in order for evidence obtained from the vehicle to be admissible in state court criminal proceedings.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that the Automobile Exception does not apply when the automobile is on the curtilage of one’s property. Curtilage is the property connected to one’s home, i.e. a driveway. The United States Supreme Court has defined it as “an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends.” Therefore, the Court stated that “[w]hen a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred…[s]uch conduct thus is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.”
As such, the Court found that the officer invaded the defendant’s Fourth Amendment interest in his home. The home is one of the most protected interests in Fourth Amendment law and there is nothing in Automobile Exception jurisprudence that allows the police search one’s home. The Court further expressed a concern that police, under the guise of the Automobile Exception, would search individual’s homes. The Court put it very simply “[i]t is, after all, an exception for automobiles” and held that the police needed a warrant to search the defendant’s motorcycle in his driveway.
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