Supreme Court Rules That Automobile Exception Does Not Permit Officers to Search Home’s Curtilage Without a Warrant

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled on the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception to the warrant requirement and its intersection with the protection afforded to a home’s curtilage.

In an opinion delivered by Justice Sotomayer, the Court ruled that the automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter the curtilage of a home to search a vehicle therein.

Within weeks, Officers Matthew McCall and David Rhodes of the Albemarle County Police Department each saw an orange and black motorcycle traveling well over the speed limit, attempted to stop the vehicle, and failed to do so. An investigation of the two traffic incidents determined that the incidents involved the same motorcyclist and that the vehicle was likely stolen and in the possession of Ryan Collins.

On Collins’s Facebook profile, the officers discovered photographs of an orange and black motorcycle parked at the top of the driveway of a house (later determined to belong to Collins’s girlfriend). Officer Rhodes tracked down the address of the house, drove there, and parked on the street. From his parked position, Officer Rhodes saw what appeared to be a motorcycle covered with a white tarp parked at the same angle and location in the driveway as the Facebook photograph.

Officer Rhodes took a picture of the motorcycle from the sidewalk and, without a warrant, walked onto the residential property to the motorcycle. He then pulled off the tarp, revealing a motorcycle that looked like the one from the speeding incident. Officer Rhodes ran a search of the license plate and vehicle identification numbers and confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen. Officer Rhodes then took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, put the tarp back on, and went to his car to wait for Collins.

Shortly thereafter, Collins returned home. Officer Rhodes knocked on the front door and Collins agreed to speak with Officer Rhodes. Collins stated that the motorcycle was his and that he bought it without title. Officer Rhodes then arrested Collins.

Collins was indicted by a Virginia grand jury for receiving stolen property. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence that Officer Rhodes obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle. Collins argued that Officer Rhodes trespassed on the curtilage of the 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. The court of appeals held that Officer Rhodes had probable cause to believe the motorcycle under the tarp was the same motorcycle involved in the traffic infraction and “numerous exigencies justified both his entry onto the property and his moving the tarp to view the motorcycle and record its identification number.”  The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed on a different rationale. The court explained that under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception, Officer Rhodes had probable cause to believe the motorcycle was contraband, justifying the warrantless search.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari. This Court began by noting that this case came at an intersection of its Fourth Amendment jurisprudence – the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and the protection extended to the curtilage of a home.

The Court has long held that the search of an automobile without a warrant is reasonable so long as officers have probable cause. The Court has justified the automobile exception on the “ready mobility” of vehicles and “the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways.” In announcing these justifications, the Court has taken care to emphasize that automobiles are treated differently from houses as a constitutional matter.

The Court has also held that the curtilage, an area immediately surrounding and associated with the home, is considered a part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment implications. The Court has stated that the “protection afforded to the curtilage is essentially a protection of families and personal privacy in an area intimately linked to the home, both physically and psychologically, where privacy expectations are most heightened.” Thus, when an officer intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search has occurred and is unreasonable without a warrant.

When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside a partially enclosed portion of the driveway abutting the house. Just like a front porch or side garden, 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.” The Court therefore found that the area where the motorcycle was searched is a curtilage.

By physically intruding the curtilage of Collins’ home to search the motorcycle, Officer Rhodes invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the motorcycle and invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage of the home. As a result, the Court was required to answer whether the automobile exception justifies the invasion of the curtilage of a home to search a vehicle therein. The Court ruled that it does not, emphasizing that the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.

The Court declined Virginia’s request that the Court expand the scope of the automobile exception to permit police to invade any space outside an automobile even if the Fourth Amendment protects that space. The Court stated that expanding the scope of the automobile exception would undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage. The Court noted that just as an officer must have a lawful right to access in order to arrest a person in his home, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parking within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage.

In addition, the Court stated that expanding the scope of the automobile exception would “untether” the exception from the “justifications underlying it.” The rationales for the automobile exception do not account for the distinct privacy interest in one’s home or curtilage. Indeed, the name of the exception “should make all this clear enough: It is, after all, an exception for automobiles.”

The Court disagreed with Virginia’s claim that the automobile exception is a categorical one that permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime and anywhere, finding that this claim has no basis in precedent and the cases cited by Virginia are factually distinct from the case at issue.

The Court also declined Virginia’s request to adopt a more limited rule regarding the intersection of the automobile exception and the protection afforded to the curtilage. Virginia asked the Court to draw a bright line and hold 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.”

The Court stated that creating a caveat to the general rule that the curtilage received Fourth Amendment protection would create confusion. Notably, the Court stated that “Virginia’s proposed bright-line rule automatically would grant constitutional rights to those persons with 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 Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and left for remand whether Officer Rhodes’ warrantless intrusion on the curtilage of Collins’ house may have been reasonable on a different basis, such as the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

Read the full case: Collins v. Virginia

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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