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 application.”
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.”