• 4th Amendment Update

    Author : The Blanch Law Firm June 15, 2018

    The Supreme Court recently released an opinion that further solidified the rights of the citizen against the state when it comes to searches and seizures on private property. In Collins v. Virginia, the Court held that police cannot search an area around a private home, including its vehicles, without getting a warrant first – even if they think they saw stolen property there.

    In Virginia, an orange and black motorcycle evaded law enforcement twice after dangerous high-speed chases, sometimes exceeding 135 miles per hour. After a period of investigation, the police were able to locate the driver's residence. Later on, law enforcement officers spotted a similar looking motorcycle underneath a tarp outside another private residence. When the driver, Ryan Collins, showed up to the residence, he was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property. He was ultimately convicted and the Virginia State Supreme Court agreed. Justice Sotomayor wrote for the majority and said that the private area around the house – the curtilage – is part of the home itself and cannot be searched without a warrant.

    The police asserted that the motorcycle was akin to a car, and the court has always held the car can be searched without a warrant as long as the officer sees something in plain sight. This is the ‘automobile exception,’ and cars can be searched if they are readily mobile and police have probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of a crime. Notably, the Court held that this power does not extend to the area around the house, and instead, the police must have a warrant before they can search.

    The court reasoned that the automobile exception cannot apply in this case because it was developed based on the idea that cars are easily moved and are subject to government regulation simply because they are on the roads. Automobiles are simply treated differently from houses, and the court declined to extend the exception to permit a state’s intrusion without a warrant upon a home or its curtilage.

    Unfortunately for the defendant, the court did express an opinion that the state could still be successful in its prosecution against Collins if they argued that another exception to the warrant requirement applied – such as the fact that Collins could have quickly moved his motorcycle away from the scene.

    The lone dissenter, Justice Alito, argued that if the motorcycle had been parked at the curb, rather than in the driveway, then there was no need for a warrant – therefore, why should the requirements change just because the officer walked 30 feet up a driveway? He also noted that the only question should be whether the officer’s search of the vehicle was reasonable – and in this case (at least in his opinion) it was.