On Remand from Supreme Court, Supreme Court of Virginia Finds That Good Faith Exception Applies in Collins v. Virginia

Last year, FEDagent reported on the Supreme Court’s decision in Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663, 1668 (2018). The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which recently issued its decision on remand.

The facts of the case involved a police investigation into a unique-looking motorcycle that evaded police officers on two separate occasions. The investigation concluded that the motorcycle was stolen. One of the officers, Officer David Rhodes, located the suspected motorcycle under a tarp parked in a driveway of home. Without a warrant, Officer Rhodes took the tarp off the motorcycle, and confirmed that the motorcycle was the one he recognized from a speeding incident. Officer Rhodes took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, and put the tarp back on. Later, when Collins arrived at his home, Officer Rhodes questioned him about the vehicle. Collins stated to Officer Rhodes that he bought the motorcycle without title. Officer Rhodes then arrested him.

A Virginia grand jury indicted Collins for receipt of a stolen vehicle. Collins moved to suppress the evidence Officer Rhodes obtained, and argued that Officer Rhodes trespassed on the curtilage of his house to conduct an investigation in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion and Collins was convicted. The Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed the trial court’s decision, and found that numerous exigencies justified Officer Rhodes’s entry onto the property. The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed on a different rationale, holding that the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception gave Officer Rhodes justified the warrantless search. Collins then petitioned and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. 

In Collins, the Supreme Court held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search the vehicle parked therein. The Court limited its holding to the interplay between the automobile exception and the curtilage doctrine, and left for resolution on remand whether the officer’s warrantless intrusion on the curtilage of Collins’s home was reasonable on a different basis, such as the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

On remand, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that the exclusionary rule does not apply in this case even if no exigent circumstances existed because at the time of the search a reasonably well-trained officer would not have known that the search of the vehicle, located a few feet across the curtilage boundary of a private driveway, was unconstitutional.

The court stated that when determining to apply the exclusionary rule, the pertinent analysis is confined to the objectively ascertainable question of whether a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal in light of all the circumstances. The court observed that the good faith inquiry raises two initial questions in this case – what the state of Officer Rhodes’s search was at the time he conducted the search of the motorcycle, and what factual circumstances provided clarity or ambiguity to Officer Rhodes in his presumed reliance on that law. The court found that here, a well-trained officer would not have known the search was illegal.

At the time Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, no binding precedent held that the automobile exception was inapplicable to a vehicle parked in a private driveway located close enough to a home to be considered within the curtilage. The court stated that while this absence of precedent does not “sideline” the exclusionary rule, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Scher v. United States, 305 U.S. 251 (1938), and subsequent cases that applied the automobile exception to driveways without considering whether, and where, the curtilage boundary might intersect with the driveway.

In Scher, federal law enforcement officers followed a vehicle suspected of contraband to a detached garage within the curtilage of a residence and conducted a warrantless search of a vehicle while it was parked there. The driver, after being arrested based upon contraband found during the search of the vehicle, moved to suppress that evidence. The trial court denied the motion, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court then held that the automobile exception followed the vehicle into the curtilage. In Collins, the Supreme Court found Scher to have “case specific” facts and found fault with its “imprecise” reasoning, which the Court found seemed to rely on the “hot pursuit” doctrine. The Court therefore did not find Scher to have any stare-decisis influence on its analysis.

Here, according to the court on remand, at the time of the search in this case, no reasonably well-trained officer would have known that Scher was understood as an application of the “hot pursuit” exception to the warrant requirement, rather than an application of the automobile exception. Indeed, the court mentioned that two Supreme Court opinions and legal commentators had previously described Scher as an application of the automobile exception. The court stated that its conclusion is also supported by the body of case law applying the automobile exception to driveways without considering whether the curtilage boundary might intersect with the driveway and thus exclude use of the automobile exception.

The court stated that after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Collins, police officers relying on the automobile exception must locate the curtilage boundary, if any, in every case where there is a search of a private driveway. Since no judicial consensus recognized the need to do so before, the exclusionary rule did not apply.

The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the Court of Appeals’ conviction of Collins.

Read the full case: Collins v. Commonwealth

This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat,  Associate Attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update


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