Stolen-Motorcycle Search Faces High Court Review

WASHINGTON (CN) – Virginia police must head to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices said Thursday, to defend their warrantless search of a driveway for an elusive, stolen motorcycle.

The case taken up this morning by the high court in Washington sprang up from routine police patrol in Albemarle County. Just outside Charlottesville on June 4, 2013, police officer Matthew McCall attempted to pull over a distinctive orange-and-black motorcycle for a traffic infraction, but the suspect evaded capture by speeding away.

Officer David Rhodes faced a similar encounter about six weeks later, observing what appeared to be the same Suzuki doing 100 mph in a 55 mph zone.

As recounted in a 2016 ruling from the case, the motorcycle driver increased his speed to 140 mph to leave his pursuer in the dust.

Rhodes did manage to get a license plate, however, which led him to the vehicle’s previous registrant. This man, Eric Jones, told Rhodes that he had sold the motorcycle to Ryan Austin Collins in April, with the warning that it was stolen and lacked proper title.

Collins finally fell into the officers’ lap two months later when he roused the suspicions of the local DMV.

The 2016 ruling notes that a forgery charge against Collins related to the DMV visit was subsequently dismissed, and that the matter is irrelevant to the motorcycle proceedings.

Rhodes and McCall wasted little time responding to the DMV, however, when they heard Collins was there.

Though Collins claimed not to know anything about any motorcycle, Rhodes found pictures of the bike on Collins’ Facebook page, parked in a driveway next to the Acura that Rhodes was attempting to register at the DMV.

Rhodes managed to locate the house from the photograph with the help from an informant and was outside the property within a half-hour.

He noticed what appeared to be a motorcycle, covered by a tarp, on the driveway. Once the officer lifted the tarp, he was able to check the motorcycle’s VIN, confirming that it was stolen years earlier from New York.

Collins returned to the property shortly thereafter, whereupon he was arrested for receiving stolen property.

Though Collins tried to have the evidence suppressed on Fourth Amendment grounds, the trial court denied his motion and convicted Collins after a bench trial.

Sentenced to three years in prison, Collins failed to overturn his conviction last year at the Virginia Court of Appeals.

“The facts of this case supported a finding of probable cause sufficient to allow Officer Rhodes to search the motorcycle under the automobile exception,” that 2016 ruling says. “As a result of his prior investigation, Officer Rhodes had several reasons to believe the motorcycle was contraband.”

Collins failed to sway the state court that the automobile exception to the warrant rule does not apply to a vehicle parked in a private driveway.

A brief dissent to the 2016 ruling hinges on the argument that what Rhodes searched was the tarp not the automobile.

“In short, it does not matter that the motorcycle is a vehicle, because it was not searched,” the dissenting justice argued. “Accordingly, the automobile exception to the warrant requirement does not apply here.”

The U.S. Supreme Court intervened on Thursday, granting Collins a writ of certiorari.

Per its custom, the court did not issue any comment on the case.

Collins is represented by Matthew A. Fitzgerald of McGuireWoods in Richmond.

Trevor Stephen Cox and Matthew Robert McGuire, from the Office of the Virginia Attorney General, are representing the state.

Docket materials indicate that United States Justice Foundation is a party to the case as well, represented by Vienna, Virginia-based attorney Robert Jeffrey Olson.

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