Supreme Court takes the wheel in two separate cases of vehicle searches
May 29, 2018 by Adam Liptak
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that police officers must generally have warrants to enter a home’s driveway in search of stolen vehicles.
The case arose from a search for a Virginia motorcyclist who twice committed traffic offenses while riding a distinctive orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame. Police officers gave chase, but the man eluded them. In one chase, the motorcycle reached speeds of more than 140 miles per hour.
Officer David Rhodes, of the Albemarle County Police Department, investigated that matter. Relying on a Facebook post from a Virginia man named Ryan Collins showing what appeared to be the same motorcycle at the top of a driveway, Officer Rhodes tracked down the address, which was the home of Mr. Collins’s girlfriend.
Officer Rhodes, without a warrant or an invitation, visited the property. He saw what appeared to be a motorcycle covered in a tarp, walked up the driveway and lifted the tarp. The motorcycle, it turned out, was stolen.
Mr. Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property after Virginia courts rejected his motion to suppress the evidence gained by the police officer’s search.
The question for the justices was whether the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches, allowed this one.
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the search was proper under “the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.”
The exception, the United States Supreme Court has said, is based on the “ready mobility” of vehicles and “the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways.”
On the other hand, the court has said, “when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” The amendment’s protections, the court had ruled, extend to a home’s “curtilage,” meaning the areas immediately surrounding it, including driveways.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for an eight-justice majority, said the case involved a clash of those two principles.
“The question before the court,” she wrote, “is whether the automobile exception justifies the invasion of the curtilage. The answer is no.”
“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 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.”
“Indeed, its name alone should make all this clear enough,” she wrote. “It is, after all, an exception for automobiles.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, saying the search had been reasonable and thus constitutional. The motorcycle, he wrote, was just a car’s length or two from the curb. “If the motorcycle had been parked at the curb, instead of in the driveway,” he wrote, “it is undisputed that Rhodes could have searched it without obtaining a warrant.”
In defending the search, Virginia officials urged the Supreme Court to draw a distinction between enclosed structures like garages and other areas around a home. Justice Sotomayor said that would give richer people more protection.
“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.”
The Fourth Amendment, Justice Sotomayor added, citing a 1982 decision, makes no such distinctions. “The most frail cottage in the kingdom is absolutely entitled to the same guarantees of privacy as the most majestic mansion,” the decision said.
In his dissent in the case, Collins v. Virginia, No. 16-1027, Justice Alito cited a passage from “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens.
“An ordinary person of common sense would react to the court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life,” Justice Alito wrote. “If that is the law, he exclaimed, ‘the law is a ass — a idiot.’"