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Police can’t use the rule that lets them search vehicles without warrants to enter a private driveway and search a vehicle there, the U.S. Supreme Court held May 29.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for an 8-1 majority that refused to extend the “automobile exception” to condone warrantless entry to the space outside the home—called “curtilage"—to search a motorcycle parked there. She captured all but Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s vote.
Her opinion navigated the intersection between “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 favored the latter, reversing a Virginia state court ruling against Ryan Collins that upheld his conviction for receiving the stolen bike.
His attorney Matthew A. Fitzgerald of McGuireWoods in Richmond, Va., is “thrilled” with the ruling. It’s “correct and important to ordinary folks’ privacy from unreasonable searches,” he told Bloomberg Law.
The Virginia Attorney General’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The decision continues the Supreme Court’s “recent trend of thoughtfully construing Fourth Amendment rules to favor judicial pre-clearance, where feasible, of police searches,” Stephen E. Henderson told Bloomberg Law. He teaches criminal law and procedure at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in Norman, Okla.
“While this trend has been most evident in the context of newer technologies, Collins is another welcome sign that the Court’s warrant preference will not be limited to ‘high-tech’ circumstances,” he said.
In another recent search and seizure decision on the low-tech end of the spectrum, the justices May 14 said in Byrd v. United States— argued the same day as Collins—that unauthorized rental car drivers have Fourth Amendment rights.
On the higher-tech end, in the most closely watched Fourth Amendment case of the term, the justices have yet to issue an opinion in Carpenter v. United States, where they’re contemplating a warrant requirement for mobile phone location data. A decision in that case is expected by the end of June.
During an investigation and without a warrant or invitation, an officer entered the driveway of Collins’s girlfriend’s house and lifted a tarp partially covering the stolen motorcycle parked near the house.
Challenging his conviction for receiving the stolen bike, Collins claimed the automobile exception, which allows law enforcement to search—without warrants—vehicles believed to contain evidence of crimes, didn’t allow the warrantless intrusion to the curtilage here. The exception applies to vehicles including motorcycles, not just cars and trucks.
Sotomayor and seven other justices agreed with Collins.
When the officer entered the driveway, he invaded Collins’s Fourth Amendment interests in both the motorcycle and the curtilage of the home, the court said.
That the automobile exception didn’t apply is apparent from the name alone, it said: “It is, after all, an exception for automobiles.”
The justices sent the case back to state court to see if any other reason justified the entry, like the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement, which applies in emergency situations.
Justice Clarence Thomas joined Sotomayor’s opinion. But he wrote separately to argue that a landmark ruling that sometimes requires suppressing evidence in state courts—where most crimes are prosecuted—should be overruled.
His separate opinion is “an extreme instance” of another trend at the high court, one that moves “strongly away from judicial remedies for police breach of Fourth Amendment rights, both limiting the suppression of evidence from criminal prosecution and very broadly construing police qualified immunity from civil suit,” Henderson said.
Writing for himself, Thomas took aim at Mapp v. Ohio, the 1961 decision that said the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule applies to the states, too. It was one of a number of decisions comprising what some have called a criminal procedure revolution, where the high court under Chief Justice Earl Warren expanded constitutional protections for criminal defendants.
Thomas is skeptical of Mapp. “The assumption that state courts must apply the federal exclusionary rule is legally dubious,” he argued. The rule “is not rooted in the Constitution or a federal statute,” he noted, going on to call for revisiting the issue in the future.
Henderson deemed it “unlikely” that a majority of the court would adopt Thomas’s view any time soon.
While Thomas looked back to the founding, Alito looked to Dickens in dissent.
“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,” he said, referring to a character from Oliver Twist. “If that is the law, he exclaimed, ‘the law is a ass—a idiot.’”
But the Fourth Amendment is neither an “ass” nor an “idiot,” Alito proclaimed.
He argued the majority’s decision is “strikingly unreasonable” and “based on a misunderstanding of Fourth Amendment basics.”
That amendment only prohibits unreasonable searches, Alito noted.
“What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable. The Court’s decision is not.”
The case is Collins v. Virginia , U.S., No. 16-1027, reversed and remanded, 5/29/18 .
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