Supreme Court: Automobile Exception Does Not Apply to Curtilage
The Supreme Court handed down an important search and seizure case in Collins vs. Virginia.
Officers from the Albemarle County Police Department observed the same motorcycle driver commit a traffic infraction in two separate incidents. In both situations, the cyclist got away from the officers. In both situations, he was driving the same motorcycle.
The officers investigated and determined that the motorcycle was stolen and in the possession of Collins. The motorcycle had an extended frame. Collins’ facebook page showed the motorcycle that was used in the traffic infractions at the top of the driveway of a house. The officer went to the house and parked on the street. From his position, he saw a motorcycle that had an extended frame covered with a white tarp at the same location and angle on the driveway as the facebook photograph. The officer took a picture of the motorcycle from the street and then walked up to them to where the motorcycle was parked. In order to “investigate further” he pulled off the tarp and observed the same motorcycle that eluded them earlier, and that was in the facebook photos. The officer ran the plates and found that it was stolen. When Collins returned him, he admitted that he bought the motorcycle without a title. He was charged with receiving stolen property.
Collins filed a motion to suppress the evidence that was obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle. He argued that the officer trespassed on the curtilage to conduct an investigation in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion. The Court of appeals affirmed because the officer had probable cause and that there were numerous exigencies that justified the officer’s entry. The Supreme court affirmed saying that the Fourth Amendment’s Automobile Exception and that the motorcycle was contraband.
The Supreme Court noted that “When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred.” Furthermore, the court determined that the part of the driveway where the motorcycle was parked and searched was curtilage. In this case, it was because it was “an area adjacent to the home and ‘to which the activity of home life extends,” thus being in the curtilage and requiring a warrant. This is because “A visitor endeavoring to reach the front door of the house would have to walk part way up the driveway, but would turn off before entering the enclosure and instead proceed up a set of steps leading to the front porch” and “When [the officer] searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside this partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house.”
Because of this, the officer’s actions were an encroachment on the fourth amendment in the item searched (the motorcycle) but also in the encroachment of his home. So the next question was if the automobile exception justified the invasion of the curtilage. Writing for the court, Justice Sotomayor used the following hypothetical:
“Applying the relevant legal principles to a slightly different factual scenario confirms that this is an easy case. Imagine a motorcycle parked inside the living room of a house, visible through a window to a passerby on the street. Imagine further that an officer has probable cause to believe that the motorcycle was involved in a traffic infraction. Can the officer, acting without a warrant, enter the house to search the motorcycle and confirm whether it is the right one? Surely not.
The reason is that the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.”
Sotomayor noted that “Nothing in our case law, however, suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant.” Further, “The Court already has declined to expand the scope of other exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.” The court went on to say that “searching a vehicle parked in the curtilage involves not only the invasion of the Fourth Amendment interest in the vehicle but also an invasion of the sanctity of the curtilage[ ]” for the same reason that officers may not enter a home to make an arrest without a warrant even when they have probable cause. She also said that “The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage.”
The court denied Virginia’s request to make a bright-line rule saying that “the automobile exception does not permit warrantless entry into ‘the physical threshold of a house or a similar fixed, enclosed structure inside the curtilage like a garage’” so that the officers wouldn't have to make case by case determinations. The court stated that the officers already have to do this because the curtilage has already been afforded constitutional protection. Also, Virginia’s proposed rule mistakenly places emphasis on visibility. Sotomayor said, “So long as it is curtilage, a parking patio or carport into which an officer can see from the street is no less entitled to protection from trespass and a warrantless search than a fully enclosed garage.” Finally, “Virginia’s proposed bright-line rule automatically would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages in which to store their vehicles but deprive those persons without such resources of any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage.”
The Supreme Court held that the automobile exception did not allow the officer to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle. The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the decision on the Supreme Court of Virginia.