Automobile v. Curtilage Search…which wins? Collins v. Virginia
Let’s start with the 4th Amendment, as it protects against warrantless, unlawful searches. However, we have some exceptions within the 4th Amendment: one being the warrantless search of an automobile. Generally automobiles have less Constitutional protections than do homes, with one of the main reasons is the “ready mobility” of a vehicle. There are other protections and rules in place, but generally “officers may search an automobile without having obtained a warrant so long as they have probable cause to do so.”
Ok, but what if the vehicle is parked in the curtilage of your house? Can Police search that vehicle without warrant by claiming the automobile search exception? That’s exactly what the People argued here in the May 29, 2018 US Supreme Court decision Collins v. Virginia authored by Justice Sotomayor. And the Court said no, this is unlawful. Let’s dive in.
The quick facts here:
Police see what looks to be a motorcycle covered by a tarp, and had reason to believe the motorcycle to be stolen (actually, here the bike was Defendant’s…although he “he had bought it without title.”
So, the search:
Police research the bike and see a pic of the bike Defendant posted on Facebook. Police go to Defendant’s place and “saw what appeared to be a motorcycle with an extended frame covered with a white tarp, parked at the same angle and in the same location on the driveway as in the Facebook photograph.” The Officer takes pictures and then walks “onto the residential property and up to the top of the driveway to where the motorcycle was parked…[then] pulled off the tarp, revealing a motorcycle that looked like the one from the speeding incident. He then ran a search of the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, which confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen. After gathering this information, Officer Rhodes took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, put the tarp back on, left the property, and returned to his car to wait for Collins.” Defendant comes home, Police contact him, and Defendant admits the bike is his. And to jail he goes.
So, back to the law. The Fourth Amendment provides in relevant part that the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” “This case arises at the intersection of two components of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and the protection extended to the curtilage of a home.”
As before, the search of an automobile can be reasonable without a warrant. However, an automobile search is vastly different than a search of your home or curtilage. Because “[a]t the Amendment’s `very core’ stands `the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.'”
So first, what is the curtilage area? It is “the area `immediately surrounding and associated with the home….'” “When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred. Such conduct thus is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.” (internal cite omitted).
To begin, the Court determines if we’re dealing with the curtilage with the facts here. And decides we have a curtilage.
“According to photographs in the record, the driveway runs alongside the front lawn and up a few yards past the front perimeter of the house. The top portion of the driveway that sits behind the front perimeter of the house is enclosed on two sides by a brick wall about the height of a car and on a third side by the house. A side 1671*1671 door provides direct access between this partially enclosed section of the driveway and the house. A visitor endeavoring to reach the front door of the house would have to walk partway up the driveway, but would turn off before entering the enclosure and instead proceed up a set of steps leading to the front porch. When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside this partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house.”
So here, the Court determines the area searched was the curtilage: “Just like the front porch, side garden, or area ‘outside the front window,’ … the driveway enclosure where Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle constitutes ‘an area adjacent to the home and `to which the activity of home life extends,’ and so is properly considered curtilage.”
Then some analysis:
Basically the Court here explains “the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.” The Court says “[i]magine a motorcycle parked inside the living room of a house.” Saying that would be unlawful to go into the house to search the vehicle. It’s as if the Officer had “seen illegal drugs through the window of Collins’ house, for example, [and] assuming no other warrant exception applied, he could not have entered the house to seize them without first obtaining a warrant.”
The usual takeaway with cases like this: police should have just gotten a warrant.