In Collins v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court held that officers may not enter the curtilage of a house without a search warrant in order to remove the tarp from a motorcycle in order to confirm that the motorcycle was stolen.
During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame, Officer David Rhodes learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of petitioner Ryan Collins. Officer Rhodes discovered photographs on Collins’ Facebook profile of an orange and black motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house, drove to the house, and parked on the street. From there, he could see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a white tarp parked in the same location as the motorcycle in the photograph.
Without a search warrant, Office Rhodes walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp, confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen by running the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, replaced the tarp, and returned to his car to wait for Collins. When Collins returned, Officer Rhodes arrested him.
Collins was indicted by a Virginia grand jury for receiving stolen property. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence that Officer Rhodes had obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle on the grounds that Officer Rhodes violated the Fourth Amendment when he trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct a search. The trial court denied Collins’ motion to suppress the evidence. Collins was convicted as charged. The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed. The Virginia State Supreme Court also affirmed, holding that the warrantless search was justified under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Supreme Court held the automobile exception to the warrant requirement does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.
“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.”
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court. First, the court discussed the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Basically, under the exception, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant when the evidence or contraband may possibly be removed from the scene due to the mobility of a vehicle and it is not practical to secure a warrant without jeopardizing the potential evidence. For instance, the automobile exception allows an officer to make a warrantless traffic stop and search a truck of a vehicle when gun parts were observed in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle.
Here, the Supreme Court emphasized that the automobile exception rationales applied only to automobiles and not to houses, and therefore supported their different treatment as a constitutional matter. “When these justifications are present, officers may search an automobile without a warrant so long as they have probable cause,” said the Court.
The court also discussed “curtilage.” In short, curtilage includes the area immediately surrounding a dwelling, and it counts as part of the home for many legal purposes, including searches. “Curtilage—the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home—is considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes,” said the Court. Thus, when an officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a Fourth Amendment search has occurred and is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.
Consequently, the court reasoned that the part of the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked and subsequently searched is curtilage:
“When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside a partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house. Just like the front porch, side garden, or area outside the front window, that enclosure constitutes an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends.” Jardines, 569 U. S., at 6, 7.”
The Court also reasoned because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes’ invasion of the curtilage. “Nothing in this Court’s case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant,” said the Court. “Such an expansion would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and untether the exception from the justifications underlying it.”
This Court also reasoned that just as an officer must have a lawful right of access to any contraband he discovers in plain view in order to seize it without a warrant, and just as an officer must have a lawful right of access in order to arrest a person in his home, so, too, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. “To allow otherwise 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,” said the Court.
Furthermore, the Court disagreed with Virginia’s proposed bright line rule for an automobile exception that would not permit warrantless entry only of the house itself or another fixed structure, e.g., a garage, inside the curtilage. “This Court has long been clear that curtilage is afforded constitutional protection, and creating a carve-out for certain types of curtilage seems more likely to create confusion than does uniform application of the Court’s doctrine,” said the Court. “Virginia’s rule also rests on a mistaken premise, for the ability to observe inside curtilage from a lawful vantage point is not the same as the right to enter curtilage without a warrant to search for information not otherwise accessible.”
Finally, the Court held that Virginia’s rule automatically would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages 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.
With that, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded Collins’ conviction for receiving stolen property.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member’s house is searched by law enforcement officers who don’t have a search warrant. It’s quite possible to suppress evidence based on an unlawful search and get any criminal charges dismissed.