by Lisa Soronen, executive director, State and Local Legal Center
Collins v. Virginia is like a tricky logic problem. Police need a warrant to search the curtilage of a home—the immediate, enclosed area surrounding a house or dwelling—but not to search a vehicle. So, is a warrant needed to search a vehicle located on the curtilage of a home? "Yes" holds the Supreme Court.
More technically, in an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment automobile exception does not permit police officers to search vehicles parked in the curtilage of a home without a warrant.
After comparing notes, two police officers discovered that the driver of an orange and black extended frame motorcycle recently had eluded both of them. The officers then learned the motorcycle was likely stolen and in possession of Ryan Collins. Collins’ Facebook page showed the motorcycle at his girlfriend’s house where he stayed a few nights a week. A police officer, without a warrant, went to the house, took the tarp off of the motorcycle—which was parked inside a partially enclosed portion of the driveway that abuts the house—ran the license plate and vehicle identification number, and confirmed the motorcycle was stolen.
Collins argued the officer needed a warrant to search the motorcycle. Virginia argued the automobile exception applied to the search and no warrant was needed.
Per the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment, police officers can search vehicles without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe they will find contraband or a crime has been committed. But officers can not enter the curtilage to gather evidence without a warrant.
In an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Supreme Court concluded that the automobile exception “extends no further than the automobile itself.” Two rationales justify the automobile exception: the “ready mobility” of vehicles and their “pervasive regulation.” “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 that 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. Indeed, its name alone should make all this clear enough: It is, after all, an exception for automobiles.”
Justice Alito, dissenting alone, quipped (from Oliver Twist): “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 an ass—an idiot.’” Justice Alito pointed out that officers don’t need warrants to search vehicles parked on public streets as long as they have probable cause because of the mobility of vehicles. A vehicle parked in a driveway is no less mobile than one parked on the street.
Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Fourth Amendment Ruling for Driver Not Listed on Rental Agreement. This blog post from 2018 looks at another case in which the Supreme Court ruled on a Fourth Amendment matter. In this case, it was whether there is an expectation of privacy for a driver not listed on a car rental agreement.
Supreme Court Rules GPS Monitoring of Sex Offenders Is a Fourth Amendment Search. In a 2015 blog post, the ruling by the Supreme Court on GPS monitoring of sexual offenders was analyzed.
Unconstitutional: Hotel Registry Ordinances and Statutes. Another 2015 blog post deals with a question on whether police need a search warrant to get access to hotel registries. The blog post explains the court's ruling and its impract on local governments.