Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq.
On May 29, 2018, in the case of Collins v. Virginia, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3210 (U.S. May 29, 2018), the Supreme Court of the United States held that, the automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry into the curtilage of a home to search a vehicle located therein. Here, the Court found the partially enclosed section of the driveway where a stolen motorcycle was parked constituted part of the home’s curtilage, as the driveway enclosure was an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extended.
In June of 2013, Officer McCall of the Albemarle County Police Department of Virginia noted that a driver of an orange and black motorcycle committed a traffic infraction. Officer McCall attempted to stop the motorcycle, but was unable to do so as the motorcycle sped off at a high rate of speed. Several weeks later, Officer Rhodes of the same department also noted that a driver of an orange and black motorcycle was speeding. He attempted to stop the driver, but the driver again sped away from him.
Officer Rhodes conducted a further investigation and learned that the motorcycle was most likely stolen and in the possession of petitioner Ryan Collins. Officer Rhodes observed on Collins’ Facebook profile that the same orange and black motorcycle was in the driveway of a house. Officer Rhodes obtained the address of the house, drove there, and parked his car on the street. From that position, he was able to see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a white tarp. The motorcycle was parked at the same location in the driveway as Officer Rhodes had observed on Collins’ Facebook page.
Officer Rhodes approached the house and took a photograph of the motorcycle from the sidewalk. He subsequently walked onto the property and removed the tarp. After doing so, he noticed that it appeared to be the same motorcycle that he and Officer McCall previously had seen speeding. After running a search of the license plate and vehicle information, he determined that the motorcycle was stolen.
Officer Rhodes took photographs of the uncovered motorcycle before putting the tarp back on and retreating to his vehicle to wait for Collins. When Collins arrived, he agreed to speak to Officer Rhodes and confessed that the motorcycle was his and that he had bought it without title. Officer Rhodes then arrested Collins.
Collins was later indicted by a Virginia grand jury for receiving stolen property. In a pretrial motion, Collins moved to suppress the evidence Officer Rhodes obtained from the warrantless search of the motorcycle. Collins contended that Officer Rhodes trespassed into the curtilage of the house to conduct his investigation of the motorcycle, which was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. At trial, the court denied Collins’ motion. He subsequently was convicted of the charge of receiving stolen property. Collins appealed his conviction.
The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, stating that Officer Rhodes had probable cause to believe that the motorcycle under the tarp was the same motorcycle which had been used to commit the traffic infractions. The Court of Appeals held that, even though Officer Rhodes did not have a warrant, his actions were lawful as “numerous exigencies” vindicated his contact with the property and the motorcycle. Collins sought review by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the Court of Appeals’ holding, finding that the case was governed by the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The Virginia Supreme Court concluded that the warrantless search of the motorcycle in the driveway was justified because Officer Rhodes had probable cause to believe that the motorcycle was contraband. The United States Supreme Court granted review of the case to address the question of whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permitted a police officer, without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home to search a vehicle parked therein.
The Supreme Court of the United States first analyzed the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The Court stated, “This case presents the question whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein. It does not.” The Court noted that a principal justification of the automobile exception was the “ready mobility” of vehicles. California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390, 105 S. Ct. 2066, 85 L. Ed. 2d 406 (1985). For this reason, the Court stated that it previously had held that automobiles were subject to long-standing governmental controls and regulations, unlike homes. Police officers can stop vehicles when the vehicle is used to violate the law, or when other problems with the vehicle arise. Id., at 368, 96 S. Ct. 3092, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1000. When such justifications are present, officers may search the vehicle without a warrant, provided they have probable cause for doing so. Id., at 392-393, 105 S. Ct. 2066, 85 L. Ed. 2d 406.
However, the Court noted that this exception allowing search without a warrant does not apply to homes, except in limited circumstances. The Court stated that it previously had held that persons have a right in their homes to be free from arbitrary government harassment and intrusion. The Court further observed that the “curtilage” – the area immediately associated with the home and to which the activity of home life extends – has been given constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment as well. Protection of curtilage is “protection of families and personal privacy in an area intimately linked to the home, both physically and psychologically, where privacy expectations are most heightened.” California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207, 212-213, 106 S. Ct. 1809, 90 L. ed. 2d 210 (1986). The Court stated that, if a police officer intrudes on the curtilage of a home to obtain evidence or information, a search of the home has occurred under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S., at 11, 133 S. Ct. 1409, 185 L. Ed. 2d 495 (2013).
In the case at hand, the Supreme Court found the driveway where Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle was part of the curtilage of the home and thereby protected against unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment. The Court noted that the area where the motorcycle was parked at the time of the search sat “behind the front perimeter of the house that is enclosed on two sides by a brick wall about the height of a car and on a third side by the house.” Officer Rhodes physically intruded on the curtilage to obtain evidence and information, without a warrant. His intrusion not only invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the motorcycle searched, but also invaded his privacy interest in the curtilage of the home.
This Court maintained the automobile exception did not justify the invasion of curtilage as “the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself”. Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940, 116 S. Ct. 2485, 135 L. ed. 2d 1031 (1996). In response to Virginia’s request to expand the scope of the exception, the Court concluded that nothing from case law suggested that the automobile exception allowed officers to enter the home or curtilage without a warrant to access a vehicle. The Court concluded that expanding the exception would “undervalue the core” of protections under the Fourth Amendment and alter the exception to be “a tool with far broader application.”
The Court reasoned that an officer cannot search a vehicle parked within a home or curtilage as part of the automobile exception because it is an intrusion on the person’s Fourth Amendment interest in the home and curtilage. Accordingly, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia and remanded the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
In a short dissent, Justice Alito reiterated that the principal justification for the automobile exception was based on the risk that the vehicle could easily be moved before a warrant could be obtained. For that reason, vehicle owners have a reduced expectation of privacy in their cars as compared to their homes. The dissent stated that the protection of homes under the Fourth Amendment does not include all real property surrounding the dwelling. Therefore, the issue to analyze should have been whether the search was reasonable. Justice Alito stated that this inquiry depended on the level of intrusion on privacy. Believing there was no privacy interests of the home impacted by Officer Rhodes’ actions, Justice Alito concluded that a case-specific analysis on the level of intrusion on privacy was proper when the vehicle to be searched was on private property. Because the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches, the judgment of the lower court should be maintained, stated Justice Alito.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
The United States Supreme Court has long espoused the concept that the automobile exception only applies as an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement to permit the search of automobiles, as the name itself makes clear. Here, the Court clarified that the automobile exception does not permit entering the curtilage of a home to search a vehicle located therein, unless an officer has a warrant or independent exception to the warrant requirement that is sufficient to permit the officer to perform a search of the home or its curtilage. As such, law enforcement agencies should ensure that their members are aware of this new decision and that their policies regarding the scope of the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement are in compliance with this case.
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