The NCSL Blog

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By Lisa Soronen

Collins v. Virginia is like a tricky logic problem. Police need a warrant to search the area around a home but not to search a vehicle.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches, did not allow a police officer to enter a home’s driveway without permission or a warrant and search for stolen vehicles.CreditEric Thayer for The New York TimesSo is a warrant needed to search a vehicle located on the private area around a home, including the driveway, called the curtilage?

Yes, holds the U.S. Supreme Court.

More technically, in an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment automobile exception does not permit police officers to search vehicles parked in the curtilage of a home without a warrant.

After comparing notes, two police officers discovered that the driver of an orange and black extended frame motorcycle recently had eluded both of them. The officers then learned the motorcycle was likely stolen and in possession of Ryan Collins.

Collins’ Facebook page showed the motorcycle at his girlfriend’s house where he stayed a few nights a week. A police officer, without a warrant, went to the house, took the tarp off of the motorcycle—which was parked inside a partially enclosed portion of the driveway that abuts the house—ran the license plate and vehicle identification number, and confirmed the motorcycle was stolen.

Collins argued the officer needed a warrant to search the motorcycle. Virginia argued the automobile exception applied to the search and no warrant was needed.

Under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment, police officers may search vehicles without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe they will find contraband or a crime has been committed. But officers may not enter the curtilage of a home to gather evidence without a warrant.

In an opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court concluded the automobile exception “extends no further than the automobile itself.”

Two rationales justify the automobile exception: The “ready mobility” of vehicles and their “pervasive regulation.” “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 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: It is, after all, an exception for automobiles.”

Justice Samuel Alito, dissenting alone, quipped (from “Oliver Twist”): “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. If that is the law, he exclaimed, ‘the law is a ass—a idiot.’ ”

Alito pointed out that officers don’t need warrants to search vehicles parked on public streets as long as they have probable cause because of the mobility of vehicles. A vehicle parked in a driveway is no less mobile than one parked on the street.

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.

 

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.