Fourth Amendment Automobile Exception Hits Roadblock

Lawrence J. Zimmerman

Fourth Amendment Ruling on Warrantless Search

In a stunning 8-1 ruling last week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a warrantless search in the case of Collins v. Virginia involving a police officer who entered a defendant’s property to examine a motorcycle concealed under a tarp near the home. This ruling illustrates a collision of two different principles: the Fourth Amendment “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement, and the protection extended to the areas immediately surrounding a home.

The Collins case began during an investigation by Officer David Rhodes of two traffic incidents involving a similarly described stolen motorcycle. Routine Facebook sleuthing linked the motorcycle to the petitioner, Ryan Collins, and led officers directly to the driveway of his girlfriend’s home.

Upon arrival, an officer observed what appeared to be the motorcycle at issue, concealed beneath a tarp and parked in the driveway. Suspicions were confirmed when the officer walked up the driveway, uncovered the motorcycle, and ran a search on its vehicle identification number (VIN).

First Things First: Fourth Amendment Basics

To fully appreciate the significance of this ruling, we should first discuss the basics of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by requiring a warrant supported by probable cause. In part, the Amendment affords protection to a person’s home and its curtilage (i.e. the immediate surrounding area), since these are the very areas where privacy expectations are most heightened.

An Exception to the Rule: Automobile Searches

Although the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant for police to conduct a search, there are a handful of exceptions—including the “automobile exception.” Under this exception, police may lawfully search a vehicle on public streets without a warrant where there is visible evidence, or so long as they have probable cause to believe there is evidence within the vehicle.

Two Principles Colliding

Arguably, the police in Collins had probable cause to believe the motorcycle at issue was the same one that had previously eluded an attempted traffic stop, thereby justifying a search. The key, however, is that despite having probable cause to examine the motorcycle, the police did not have a warrant prior to entering onto the property.

The central issue in Collins thus hinges upon a clash between principles: whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment exception justifies the warrantless invasion of the curtilage of one’s home. The answer to this question, as articulated in Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s majority opinion, is a resounding no.

“In physically intruding on the curtilage of Collins’ home to search the motorcycle,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, “[the officer] not only invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the item searched, i.e., the motorcycle, but also invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage of his home.” The majority opinion continued, finding that “a parking patio or carport into which an officer can see from the street is no less entitled to protection from trespass and a warrantless search than a fully enclosed garage.” Clearly, the Supremes have been reviving our Fourth Amendment the last few terms and we are still waiting on Carpenter, which will be very interesting since it is another case involving advanced technology.

If you have been arrested, contact our law firm so we can fight for your Fourth Amendment rights.

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