At the end of May, the Supreme Court extended Fourth Amendment protections to include property found in the area surrounding one’s home. Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the opinion for the 8-1 majority, ruled that a police officer cannot simply walk up to a vehicle parked in a person’s driveway: “Such conduct […] is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant,” she wrote.
Sotomayor posited: “When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred.” The court’s decision follows the logic of a similar 2013 decision, which found that police officers may not bring drug-sniffing canines to a person’s front porch without a warrant.
In issuing the ruling, the high court sided with Ryan Collins, who police officers arrested for “receiving stolen property.” After spotting an orange and black bike speeding at 140 mph, officers began searching for the vehicle in Albemarle County, Virginia. Eventually, law enforcement officers discovered a motorbike with similar markings on Collins’ Facebook page, and thereafter, visited Collins’ home. Upon seeing a tarp-covered vehicle in Collins’ driveway, an officer proceeded to lift the cover and take pictures of the motorcycle. Since the bike matched the description, Collins was arrested and convicted.
The Virginia courts refused to accept Collins’ argument that the Fourth Amendment protects against such searches, contending that the covered motorcycle falls under the Amendment’s automobile exception. Sotomayor (and seven other Supreme Court Justices) took a different view: “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.” Elsewhere, Sotomayor defined curtilage, in a reference to Florida v. Jardines, as “the area ‘immediately surrounding and associated with the home’ [or] ‘part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.’”
Automobile Exception vs. Homes
Ultimately, the court distinguished between the intent of the automobile exception and the high court’s preferential treatment toward houses and the curtilage thereof. The automobile exception relies on at least two assumptions: that the vehicle is readily mobile and subject to vehicular regulations. As noted in Amy Howe’s opinion analysis, there is nothing in this exception to suggest that a police officer should be allowed to enter a person’s private residence – which includes the surrounding area – without a warrant. In fact, according to Sotomayor’s ruling, the Supreme Court has treated “automobiles differently from houses,” and since the motorcycle was on Collins’ driveway, it was essentially connected to his home. Thus, the court concluded: “[We] decline Virginia’s invitation to extend the automobile exception to permit a warrantless intrusion on a home or its curtilage.”
The Most Frail Cottage in the Kingdom
What’s more, the high court rejected the lower court’s fall-back argument, according to which different types of property might deserve different levels of constitutional protection. For instance, the lower court contended, a garage might be off-limits, while a drive-way could be subject to warrantless searches. With this rule in place, officers would no longer have to make difficult constitutional decisions. Sotomayor refuted this line of thinking, saying that such a rule would draw a line between those who can afford garages and those who can’t. “The most frail cottage in the kingdom is absolutely entitled to the same guarantees of privacy as the most majestic mansion,” she wrote. Moreover, officers make these decisions all the time with no apparent hardship.
Siding with the lower courts, Samuel Alito dissented, arguing that since “the vehicle was parked in plain view in a driveway just a few feet from the street,” it could not be considered protected property. “If the motorcycle had been parked at the curb, instead of in the driveway,” he argued, “it is undisputed that [the officer] could have searched it without obtaining a warrant.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, for his part, wrote a concurring opinion, agreeing with Sotomayor’s basic argument as it pertains to Supreme Court precedent. However, he contended, the Supreme Court should not be allowed to enforce the so-called “exclusionary rule,” which preempts prosecutors from using evidence that has been unlawfully obtained. This rule, he argued, has no basis in federal statute or the constitution. Thomas is in the minority here.
Ultimately, Sotomayor suggested that the lower court might still be able to argue on different grounds that the officer was permitted to search the vehicle.
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