Collins v. Virginia, May 2018. Episode 495 (Duration 11:20)
Police need a warrant to search a vehicle on private property.
This case presents the question whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein.
Police were aware of a man speeding on an orange and black motorcycle but were unable to catch him. Officers learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of petitioner Ryan Collins. After discovering photographs on Collins’ Facebook profile that featured an orange and black motorcycle parked at the top of the driveway of a house, Officer Rhodes tracked down the address of the house, drove there, and parked on the street.
It was later established that Collins’ girlfriend lived in the house and that Collins stayed there a few nights per week.
From his parked position on the street, Officer Rhodes saw what appeared to be a motorcycle with an extended frame covered with a white tarp, parked at the same angle and in the same location on the driveway as in the Facebook photograph.
Officer Rhodes, who did not have a warrant, exited his car and walked toward the house.
He stopped to take a photograph of the covered motorcycle from the sidewalk, and then walked onto the residential property and up to the top of the driveway to where the motorcycle was parked. When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside this partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house.
In order “to investigate further,” Officer Rhodes pulled off the tarp, revealing a motorcycle that looked like the one from the speeding incident. He then ran a search of the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, which confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen.
After gathering this information, Officer Rhodes took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, put the tarp back on, left the property, and returned to his car to wait for Collins.
Defendant Gets Home
Shortly thereafter, Collins returned home.
Officer Rhodes walked up to the front door of the house and knocked. Collins answered, agreed to speak with Officer Rhodes, and admitted that the motorcycle was his and that he had bought it without title.
Officer Rhodes then arrested Collins.
Collins was indicted by a Virginia grand jury for receiving stolen property.
Automobile Exception v. Warrant Requirement
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.
The Court has held that the search of an automobile can be reasonable without a warrant.
The Court first articulated the so-called automobile exception in Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132 (1925). The “ready mobility” of vehicles served as the core justification for the automobile exception for many years. California v. Carney, 471 U. S. 386, 390 (1985) (citing, e.g., Cooper v. California, 386 U. S. 58, 59 (1967); Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U. S. 42, 51–52 (1970)).
Later cases then introduced an additional rationale based on “the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways.” Carney, 471 U. S., at 392. As the Court explained in South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U. S. 364 (1976):
“Automobiles, unlike homes, are subjected to pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls, including periodic inspection and licensing requirements. As an everyday occurrence, police stop and examine vehicles when license plates or inspection stickers have expired, or if other violations, such as exhaust fumes or excessive noise, are noted, or if headlights or other safety equipment are not in proper working order.”
Id., at 368.
Homes Are Different
These rationales don’t exist for houses.
Like the automobile exception, the Fourth Amendment’s protection of curtilage has long been black letter law. “[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U. S. 1, 6 (2013). “At the Amendment’s ‘very core’ stands ‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’” Ibid. (quoting Silverman v. United States, 365 U. S. 505, 511 (1961)).
Curtilage Part Of The Home
To give full practical effect to that right, the Court considers curtilage—“the area ‘immediately surrounding and associated with the home’”—to be “‘part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.’” Jardines, 569 U. S., at 6 (quoting Oliver v. United States, 466 U. S. 170, 180 (1984)). “The protection afforded the curtilage is essentially a protection of families and personal privacy in an area intimately linked to the home, both physically and psychologically, where privacy expectations are most heightened.” California v. Ciraolo, 476 U. S. 207, 212–213 (1986).
When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred. Such conduct thus is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.
Just like the front porch, side garden, or area outside the front window the driveway enclosure where Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle constitutes an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends, and so is properly considered curtilage.
State Says Expand Automobile Exception
Virginia asks the Court to expand the scope of the automobile exception to permit police to invade any space outside an automobile even if the Fourth Amendment protects that space. Nothing in our case law, however, suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant.
Expanding the scope of the automobile exception in this way would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and untether the automobile exception from the justifications underlying it. Riley v. California, 573 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 10) (quoting Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. 332, 343 (2009)).
Surely, He Couldn’t Go In The House
Had Officer Rhodes seen illegal drugs through the window of Collins’ house, for example, assuming no other warrant exception applied, he could not have entered the house to seize them without first obtaining a warrant. Similarly, it is a “settled rule that warrantless arrests in public places are valid,” but, absent another exception such as exigent circumstances, officers may not enter a home to make an arrest without a warrant, even when they have probable cause. Payton v. New York, 445 U. S. 573, 587–590 (1980).
That is because being arrested in the home involves not only the invasion attendant to all arrests but also an invasion of the sanctity of the home.
Likewise, searching a vehicle parked in the curtilage involves not only the invasion of the Fourth Amendment interest in the vehicle but also an invasion of the sanctity of the curtilage.
Must Have A Lawful Right To Be There
Just as an officer must have a lawful right of access to any contraband he discovers in plain view in order to seize it without a warrant, and just as an officer must have a lawful right of access in order to arrest a person in his home, so, too, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception.
The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage.
Garages Would Have More Protection
Virginia’s proposed bright-line rule automatically would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages in which to store their vehicles 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. See United States v. Ross, 456 U. S. 798, 822 (1982) (“[T]he most frail cottage in the kingdom is absolutely entitled to the same guarantees of privacy as the most majestic mansion”).
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.
Given the centrality of the Fourth Amendment interest in the home and its curtilage and the disconnect between that interest and the justifications behind the automobile exception, we decline Virginia’s invitation to extend the automobile exception to permit a warrantless intrusion on a home or its curtilage.
For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
● People v. Smock, 2018 IL App (5th) 140449 (April). Episode 489 – This Hot Pursuit Of A Disorderly Conduct Suspect Didn’t Justify The Warrantless Entry Into The Trailer