Fourth Amendment “Automobile Exception” Remains Limited

Huge win for advocates of the Fourth Amendment

fourth amendment automobile exception

The Fourth Amendment’s purpose is to protect the interest and privacy of the home and its curtilage first and foremost

INTRO

On May 29, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision that states that the police cannot search a car parked on private property without a warrant. This is in effect despite an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment that applies to automobiles. Justice Sotomayor writing the opinion for the majority declines to extend the Automobile Exception to vehicles that are parked within the curtilage of a home as it is not justifiable to intrude on a person’s privacy interest in his home and curtilage.

WHAT HAPPENED?

After the driver of a black and orange motorcycle with an extended frame alluded the police for two traffic violations, officers of the Albemarle County Police Department conducted an investigation. This resulted in finding out that the motorcycle was likely stolen and in the possession of a Ryan Collins (hereafter, “Collins”). They were even able to find photographs of the motorcycle and Collins on Facebook that led them to believe that the bike and Collins were at his girlfriend’s home.

An officer drove to the home and parked on the street to do some surveillance. As it turns out, there seemed to be a motorcycle with an extended frame covered by a tarp at the top of the driveway. The bike was even parked in the same location and the same angle as it was in the Facebook photos. The officer’s actions that followed this surveillance are what this case is primarily about.

After the officer observed what he could from the street, he took a photograph from the sidewalk and then proceeded to walk onto the residential property of Collins’ girlfriend’s home. He walked up the driveway to where the bike was parked. He then pulled the tarp off which revealed a bike that looked just like the one from the two traffic violations. The officer then ran the plates and its VIN which confirmed that the bike was in fact stolen. Once he took a photo of the bike, he recovered it with the tarp and went back to his vehicle. He waited there until Collins returned home. Shortly after, Collins was arrested.

At the lower court, Collins attempted to have the evidence obtained from a warrantless search of the motorcycle suppressed by arguing that the officer trespassed on the curtilage of the home and violated his Fourth Amendment rights. However, this motion was denied and he was found guilty. Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property which both the Court of Appeals of Virginia and the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed, though for different reasons.

The Court of Appeals believed that the officer had probable cause to believe the motorcycle was the same one as from the traffic infractions and that his actions were justified by “numerous exigencies” allowed by the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Virginia however believed that the officer’s actions were protected by the “Automobile Exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The Court said that the officer had probable cause to believe the motorcycle was contraband and that the warrantless search was justified on those grounds.

SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?

Under normal circumstances, the Fourth Amendment requires the police to obtain a search warrant in order to conduct a search. While there are a few exceptions to this rule, the one in question today is one that applies to cars, known as the “automobile exception.” This gives the police the ability to search a vehicle without a warrant as long as they have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime inside and if the car is what they call “readily movable.”

As previously mentioned, the Supreme Court of Virginia believed that the officer’s actions fell under the automobile exception and were therefore justified. However, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to extend the exception to justify intrusions made on the curtilage (The area immediately surrounding a home) and reversed the decision made by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

It seems that the Court was trying to find a balance between the right to privacy within the curtilage of one’s home and the justification for the automobile exception of “ready mobility” of cars. As a result, the majority ruled that the right to privacy is not displaced by a police officer’s need to search a vehicle when it is within the curtilage of a home. The Fourth Amendment’s purpose is to protect the interest and privacy of the home and its curtilage first and foremost. Not even the justifications for the automobile exception can trump that.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

This was a huge win for advocates of the Fourth Amendment because it is keeping the protections given to us as citizens broad and the exceptions the police can use limited. As for this case, Collins isn’t entirely in the clear. While the Court reversed the decisions made by the lower courts, they also sent it back to the state courts for more proceedings. Virginia will have another chance to win its case against Collins, but it would have to be under another theory – possibly a different exception to the warrant requirement. If anyone is interested in reading the full opinion of the court, the case name is Collins v. Virginia and you can find the court opinion here.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I want to thank our Summer extern, Ashlyn Gallant for all her research and writing of this blog article! Ashlyn is in her third year of law school at the University of Dayton School of Law.

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