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Supreme Court Holds Fourth Amendment to Obtain Search Warrant for Automobiles

Justice Sotomayor, delivering the majority opinion in Collins v. Virginia, held that the automobile exemption does not permit warrantless searches of automobiles located in the home or curtilage. 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3210 (U.S. Supreme Court, May 29, 2018). In Collins, the police were investigating two highspeed traffic violations involving a stolen motorcycle.

Officer Rhodes, while investigating the matter, obtained photographs of Ryan Collins with a motorcycle fitting the description of the motorcycle involved in the traffic violations. Upon obtaining this information, Rhodes drove to Collins’ girlfriend’s home and observed what appeared to be a motorcycle underneath a tarp in the driveway. Rhodes, without a search warrant, walked on to the residential property, removed the tarp, and determined that the motorcycle was the one involved with the traffic incidents. Rhodes, after taking pictures of the motorcycle, returned to his car and waited for Collins to arrive. Collins was arrested and although he filed a pretrial motion to exclude evidence, Collins was convicted. The trial court, the Court of Appeals of Virginia, and Supreme Court of Virginia concluded that the evidence was admissible because Rhodes had probable cause and that this case would fall under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Collins argued that the motorcycle was protected by the Fourth Amendment because, although not inside the home, the Fourth Amendment applies to “the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home” known as the “curtilage.” Secondly, Collins argued that even though Rhodes was searching a vehicle, the automobile exceptions does not grant unwarranted entry of the curtilage of one’s property.

The Court, in assessing Collins’ first argument determined that due to the location and design, his driveway was part of the curtilage. The driveway in this case was located alongside the house and was partially enclosed by brick walls on two sides and enclosed by the home on a third. Due to the driveways inherent attachment to the home the Court found that it was deserving of the same protection as a front porch, or side garden, and thus concluded that the driveway was part of the home’s curtilage.

The Court was faced with a much more difficult question when forced to assess the second issue in this matter, the automobile exception. The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment states that police may search one’s automobile without a warrant if there is sufficient probable cause to do so. The reasoning behind this doctrine is that due to the inherent ability for an automobile to escape and drive off, the police are granted easier access in order to obtain necessary evidence. The Court rejected the argument that the automobile exceptions grants the police the ability to enter onto private property and conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle. The Court further declined to expand the scope of the automobile exception and based their decision on the foundation that, although they may have the right to search the vehicle without a warrant, they must also have the right to access the object itself. In this matter, Rhodes was without right to enter the private property, and thus his search of the motorcycle was unlawful. The Court held that the privacy of the home is paramount and to expand the scope of the automobile exception to allow for warrantless searches of a vehicle in the home or curtilage would violate the Fourth Amendment.

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