The Supreme Court declined to extend the Fourth Amendment’s “automobile
exception” and reinforced the curtilage of private property on May
29 in an 8-1 decision.
The ruling came in response to a case involving a motorcyclist in Virginia
who committed two traffic offenses while riding a noticeable orange and
black motorcycle. Virginia police caught notice of him and engaged him
in a chase with speeds up to 140 mph.
The fleeing motorist escaped the police, who later saw a Facebook post
from someone named Ryan Collins, which showed what officers believed to
be the motorcycle in question. Albemarle County Police Officer David Rhodes
tracked down the address where the vehicle was seen in the photo, which
turned out to be Collins’ girlfriend’s home.
Upon arriving, he saw what appeared to be a motorcycle under a tarp in
the driveway. Then, without first obtaining a warrant, he walked up the
driveway and uncovered the motorcycle in question, which also turned out
to be stolen.
“The Fourth Amendment normally requires police to have a warrant
to conduct a search. There are exceptions, one of which is the automobile
exception,” said attorney Brad Koffel. “However, the automobile
exception is only for vehicles that are “readily mobile”.
What if the automobile / motorcycle is parked in constitutionally protected
space like curtilage of a home – in this case, Mr. Collins’
driveway? The vehicle is now part of that constitutionally protected space.”
While the automobile exception allows police officers to search a vehicle
without a warrant as long as there is probable cause, the Supreme Court
ruled that this exception does not justify the invasion of the curtilage.
“To allow an officer to rely on the automobile exception to gain
entry into a house or its curtilage for the purpose of conducting a vehicle
search,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “would unmoor the
exception from its justifications, render hollow the core Fourth Amendment
protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage, and
transform what was meant to be an exception into a tool with far broader
Virginia attempted to convince the Supreme Court to differentiate between
enclosed structures, like garages, and driveways. The Supreme Court rejected
this, and stated that this distinction would simply give additional protections
to richer people.
“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,” she wrote,
“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.”