Warrantless Driveway Search Rankles High Court

(CN) – A police officer who pulled the tarp off a parked motorcycle to verify that it was stolen should have first gotten a warrant, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Though probable cause can substantiate a warrantless automobile search, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the eight-judge majority this morning that automobile exception conflicts here with the Fourth Amendment’s protection of curtilage.

Precedent dictates that curtilage, meaning the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home, qualifies as part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.

“When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred,” Sotomayor wrote. “Such conduct thus is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.”

Taking issue with the reversal meanwhile Justice Samuel Alito invoked “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,” the dissent states. “If that is the law, he exclaimed, ‘the law is a ass — a idiot.’”

The search here occurred in the summer of 2013 when a distinctive orange-and-black motorcycle twice sped away from police in Albemarle County, Virginia, just outside Charlottesville.

Even though the bike was doing 140 mph, Officer David Rhodes managed to catch its license plate and tracked down its last known previous registrant.
This man in turn pointed police toward Ryan Austin Collins, whose Facebook page included a picture of the bike parked in his girlfriend’s driveway.

When Rhodes showed up at the house, however, the bike he saw in the picture was covered with tarp. Rhodes unveiled the bike, used the VIN to confirm that it was stolen from New York years earlier, and promptly arrested Collins for receiving stolen property.

Collins meanwhile failed to have the evidence suppressed, was convicted after a bench trial and sentenced then to three years in prison.

The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed the result in 2016, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed 8-1 on Tuesday.

Invoking a hypothetical situation, Sotomayor asked what would happen if the officer could see a motorcycle parked in a living room and believed that it had been involved in a traffic infraction.

“Can the officer, acting without a warrant, enter the house to search the motorcycle and confirm whether it is the right one? Surely not,” the ruling states.

“The reason is that the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself. 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.”

Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion but emphasized in a concurring opinion his belief that the court should refrain in future cases from forcing states to apply the federal exclusionary rule.

“The exclusionary rule appears nowhere in the Constitution, postdates the founding by more than a century, and contradicts several longstanding principles of the common law,” Thomas wrote.

Claiming that the Founders would take issue with the rule as well, Thomas noted said that, “historically, if evidence was relevant and reliable, its admissibility did not ‘depend upon the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the mode, by which it [was] obtained.’”

Thomas said the court should take the first available opportunity to revisit the issue in light of modern precedents.

The dissent by Alito went farther, meanwhile, saying that the warrantless search of Collins’ motorcycle should be deemed reasonable whether it was parked on the curb or in his driveway.

“The tarp-covered motorcycle parked in the driveway could have been uncovered and ridden away in a matter of seconds,” Alito wrote. “And Officer Rhodes’s brief walk up the driveway impaired no real privacy interests.”

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