A recent case from the United States Supreme Court was a major victory for advocates of the 4th Amendment (shouldn’t we all be?). The case, Collins v. Virginia, addressed the issue of whether the exception to the warrant requirement of the 4th Amendment that applies to automobiles applies when the vehicle is on private property.
A driver of a black and orange motorcycle with an extended frame was observed committing traffic violations on two separate occasions by two different police officers in Virginia. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the motorcycle was stolen and in the possession of Collins. Moreover, photos were found on Facebook showing the motorcycle and Collins at Collins’ girlfriend’s home.
Law enforcement conducted surveillance on the girlfriend’s home, which Collins stayed at regularly, and observed a motorcycle with an extended frame covered by a tarp parked in the driveway. A police officer, who did not have a search warrant, walked onto the residential property “to further investigate.” The officer pulled the tarp off the motorcycle and ran the VIN of the motorcycle. The motorcycle was reported stolen. The officer then put the tarp back on the vehicle and left the property.
When Collins returned home later that day, the officer knocked on Collins’ door and arrested him. Collins was indicted for receiving stolen property. Collins filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the evidence obtained was done so as a result of a warrantless search of the motorcycle. Specifically, the officer had trespassed on the curtilage of the house to conduct an investigation in violation of the 4th Amendment. The motion was denied by the trial court.
The Court of Appeals affirmed and assumed that the vehicle was not only parked in the curtilage, but the officer had probable cause to conduct the search. Moreover, even absent a warrant, “numerous exigencies justified both his entry onto the property and his moving the tarp to view the motorcycle and record its identification number.”
The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed for a different reason. It argued that the search fell under the 4th Amendment’s automobile exception. The officer had probable cause to search the motorcycle as it was believed to be contraband, and the warrantless search was, therefore, justified.
When Must the Police Obtain a Search Warrant?
Under most circumstances, law enforcement must first obtain a search warrant before any search of the property may occur. There are several exceptions to this rule, including the “automobile exception.” See Carroll v. United States. This exception permits the police to search a vehicle without a warrant so long as there is probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is contained inside the vehicle and if the vehicle is “readily movable.” See California v. Carney.
The issue in Collins was whether that exception to the warrant requirement should be extended to a vehicle parked on private property, or within the “curtilage” of the home. Curtilage includes the area immediately surrounding a home and associated with the home, such as a driveway. At the core of the 4th Amendment is the right of a person to retreat to his or her home and be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion. See Florida v. Jardines and Silverman v. United States. When the police physically intrude onto the curtilage to gather evidence, a search has occurred and is unreasonable absent a warrant.
Automobile Exception v. Curtilage and the Warrant Requirement
In Collins, the Court was not willing to extend the automobile exception to justify warrantless intrusions on private property inside the curtilage of a home. The Court appeared to try and strike a balance between the right to privacy within the curtilage of a person’s home and the mobility of vehicles. However, the court held that the right to privacy is not displaced by law enforcement’s need to search a vehicle inside the curtilage of a home. The 4th Amendment’s primary purpose is to protect the privacy of the home and its curtilage and the automobile exception does not override that purpose.
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