United States Supreme Court Decision; Collins v. Virginia

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In Collins, the Court held the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement does not allow officers to enter a home or its curtilage to search a vehicle on therein.  

As for the Court’s actual opinion . . . .

(Taken from the syllabus prepared by the Reporter of Decisions)

Collins v. Virginia

Argued January 9, 2018

Decided May 29, 2018

SOTOMAYOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

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. The trial court denied Collins’ motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that Officer Rhodes violated the Fourth Amendment when he trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct a search, and Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property. The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed. The State Supreme Court also affirmed, holding that the warrantless search was justified under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception.

Held:  The automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage to search a vehicle therein.

​(a) 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. In announcing each of the automobile exception’s justifications — i.e., the “ready mobility of the automobile” and “the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways” — the Court emphasized that the 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.  Curtilage—the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home—is considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.  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. 

(b) As an initial matter, 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.  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.  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.  An officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle to search it under 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. 

(c) Contrary to Virginia’s claim, the automobile exception is not a categorical one that permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime, anywhere, including in a home or curtilage.  Also unpersuasive is 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.  The Supreme Court has long been clear that curtilage is afforded constitutional protection, and the Court found that creating a carveout for some curtilage would more likely create confusion than applying a uniform application of the Court’s doctrine. Virginia’s rule also rests on a mistaken premise — the ability to observe inside curtilage from a lawful vantage point is different from the right to enter curtilage without a warrant to search for information not otherwise accessible.  Finally, 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.

The Court left it to the Virginia Supreme Court to decide on remand whether the search could be upheld on a separate ground, such as the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

Reversed and Remanded

Judge Thomas concurred in the judgment, but wrote separately to express his skepticism that the Supreme Court has the authority to impose the exclusionary rule on the States.  He said he would be open to revisiting the question.

Justice Alito dissented, stating he would have held there the automobile exception applied.  He lamented that if the motorcycle was parked on the curb, the search would have been indisputably legal.  But the outcome is changed simply because the officer had to walk 30 or so feet up the driveway of a house rented by the defendant’s girlfriend.  After framing the issue, he went on to state:

“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.’ The Fourth Amendment is neither an ‘ass’ nor an ‘idiot.’”

The decision can be found here:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-1027_7lio.pdf

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