Supreme Court Says 4th Amendment — Not The Automobile Exception — Covers Vehicles Parked In Driveways

from the stay-off-my-lawn dept

Depending on your view, the Supreme Court has either restored a bit of the Fourth Amendment with its recent decision, or simply reiterated its protections. Either way, the decision [PDF] in Collins v. Virginia does halt the expansion of the “automobile exception.” The State of Virginia was hoping to see this extended all the way up people’s driveways, but that runs contrary to the exception itself, which only grants law enforcement plenty of warrant-free searches if the vehicle is on a public road.

There’s a difference between houses and vehicles in Fourth Amendment caselaw, but this case combines them both. Decisions at multiple lower levels all found for the state. The Supreme Court disagrees. The automobile exception is predicated on a few traits specific to vehicles on public roads.

In announcing each of the automobile exception’s justifications—i.e., the “ready mobility of the automobile” and “the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways,” California v. Carney, 471 U. S. 386, 390, 392—the Court emphasized that the rationales applied only to automobiles and not to houses, and therefore supported their different treatment as a constitutional matter. When these justifications are present, officers may search an automobile without a warrant so long as they have probable cause.

The state wanted this read to include parked vehicles in driveways of private residences. Further than that, it wanted the exception to cover Officer David Rhodes’ actions. In the course of an investigation of a stolen motorcycle (one that leaps, with zero explanation, from two officers seeing the same bike engage in moving violations to scanning Facebook for photos of the bike), Officer Rhodes ended up at the house petitioner Ryan Collins’ was staying at. Rhodes had spotted photos of the bike on Collins’ Facebook page and suspected the bike was stolen.

Rhodes spotted what appeared to be the stolen motorcycle under a tarp parked close to the house. He walked up the driveway, lifted the tarp, and ran the plates to confirm it was stolen. With the tarp still removed, Rhodes took pictures of the bike and returned to his vehicle to await Collins’ return to the house. Collins was arrested and charged.

As the Supreme Court points out, the automobile exception does not allow warrantless searches anywhere a vehicle can be found. To perform this search, Officer Rhodes had to violate Fourth Amendment protections given to residences.

As an initial matter, the part of the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked and subsequently searched is curtilage. When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside a partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house. Just like the front porch, side garden, or area “outside the front window,” that enclosure constitutes “an area adjacent to the home and ‘to which the activity of home life extends.’ ” Jardines, 569 U. S., at 6, 7.

This immediately made the search performed by Rhodes unconstitutional, and the court notes there is nothing precedential that supports the state’s arguments.

Because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes’ invasion of the curtilage. Nothing in this Court’s case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant. Such an expansion would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and “ ‘untether’ ” the exception “ ‘from the justifications underlying’ ” it.

The court uses the example of plain view to explain the violation and its refusal to extend the automobile exception further than public streets. If an officer sees contraband or evidence of illegal activity through the window of a house, he still must obtain a warrant to search the residences. What has been seen in plain view can support the warrant request, but it does not give officers permission to perform warrantless searches. Even if Officer Rhodes could see enough of the bike to suspect it was the stolen bike he was searching for (as the dissent asserts), that’s still only reasonable suspicion, which is not enough to overcome the Fourth Amendment’s requirements.

Imagine a motorcycle parked inside the living room of a house, visible through a window to a passerby on the street. Imagine further that an officer has probable cause to believe that the motorcycle was 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 reason is that the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.

The state suggested the Supreme Court draw its bright line elsewhere, allowing it to retain the fruits of Officer Rhodes’ illegal search. Its proposal would allow officers to traipse all over Constitutional rights and porches or whatever, so long as they did not enter houses or outbuildings, like garages. The court points out this suggested bright line is not only stupid, but would unequally apply Fourth Amendment protections.

This Court has long been clear that curtilage is afforded constitutional protection, and creating a carveout for certain types of curtilage seems more likely to create confusion than does uniform application of the Court’s doctrine. Virginia’s rule also rests on a mistaken premise, for the ability to observe inside curtilage from a lawful vantage point is not the same as the right to enter curtilage without a warrant to search for information not otherwise accessible. Finally, Virginia’s rule automatically would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages but deprive those persons without such resources of any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage.

This draws the bright line where it should be drawn: at the edge of private property. Certainly officers are still free to look at the exteriors of vehicles parked in private driveways. They can even run the plates to see if they’re stolen or legitimately owned. But they can’t do what Officer Rhodes did — walk up a driveway and lift a tarp to expose a partially-hidden vehicle. Just because it’s a vehicle doesn’t make the intrusion any less unconstitutional.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Says 4th Amendment — Not The Automobile Exception — Covers Vehicles Parked In Driveways”

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Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Those theiving neighbors.

These days damage done by law enforcement often exceeds damage done by organized crime. It outpaces by magnitudes damage done by covetous neighbors.

I don’t see why the vehicle exception should continue past vehicles actively in use with driver present, but I’m wary of giving state authorities too much power over the public.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Down side: neighbor can steal your car and park it visibly,

Rhodes took pictures of the bike and returned to his vehicle to await Collins’ return to the house.

If they were prepared to wait for Colins to come home, the could also wait to get a warrant, or use the vehicle exception if he tried to drive the bike anywhere.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Down side: neighbor can steal your car and park it visibly,

Enjoy your "win".

I will. And if my neighbor steals my car, parks it visibly in their driveway, I’ll just call the cops and have my neighbor arrested for grand theft auto. Are you really that stupid?

I’d much rather have to go buy a new car because my neighbor stole it than have the government violating my right to privacy, personal property, right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, you know, all that stuff the fourth protects and this decision upholds.

Theft is still illegal and the inconvenience of having my car stolen is far less than basically granting the government a license to spy on me and take whatever they want, whenever they want, for any reason they want, leaving me with no recourse whatsoever.

Go back to class.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Down side: neighbor can steal your car and park it visibly,

Uh… no they can’t. The police can see that car, get a warrant, and arrest your neighbor. The idea that the police have to get a warrant (which is all this case says) meaning that somehow people can get away with anything, is stupid….

Pro Se says:

rights & wrongs

—–“There’s a difference between houses and vehicles in Fourth Amendment caselaw…”

But there’s no difference whatsoever in the 4th Amendment itself.

Houses, cars, boats, oxcarts, bicycles, horses, dogsleds are irrelevant to the personal “Right” established by the 4th.

Federal judges know that and also that their Potomac employer often finds the 4th (and other Amendments) inconvenient.

SCOTUS has over a two century record of great difficulty reading the text of the Constitution. An eye test should be mandatory for all SCOTUS political appointees.

SCOTUS has long diminished 4A down to merely a highly flexible guideline

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe I should read the bill of rights again, because I do not recall any exceptions.

If they want exceptions to the bill of rights, there are well established and documented procedures to accomplish this. Why are these folk so damned lazy, like juveniles who are unwilling to do their chores but still demand their allowance.

Of course they will respond with “rule of law” but that is a tired and worn out retort. You will do as they say or suffer the consequences regardless of the law.

Paul Brinker (profile) says:

Re: Re: "Rule of law"

Selective Enforcement is required.

In the age of computers we could start speed fines the moment you go .01 mph over the limit. We could charge each time you exceeded 1 mile with the standard punishment. We could pull your driver license for going 10 over but of course sent a letter in the mail informing you of this fact, while at the same time racking up more tickets for driving on a suspended license.

This is just speeding tickets, wait till we get into household chemicals with out MSDN sheets because you have a home office.

Of course my favorite is the 16 year old girl whos naked selfie got out to the entire school. Often times the picture can be traced to almost every number and every student is guilty by possession and the girl is both guilty of manufacturing but also distribution.

Do you really want to live in this world?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Speeding limits?

Absolute rule of law would rapidly highlight which of our countless laws are stupid, over reaching or too broadly defined, and they would have to be changed to save the legal system from collapsing from over enforcement.

Nowadays, selective enforcement makes everyone a criminal, but only minorities, marginalized groups, counter cultures and people personally begrudged by district attorneys get prosecuted.

We wouldn’t have the laws we have if enforcement of them was mandated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "Rule of law"

“How is rule of law an excuse for anything”

I agree, and that is why it is revolting to hear it used in such a manner. I do not recall the politicians names but I have heard some saying this exact thing in response to questions about law enforcement.

“They are open about the accepted use of prosecutorial discretion”

Yes, at their cocktail parties bragging about their “achievements”. But in public, in front of the media or in court their story changes quite a bit.

“They are open about the accepted use of prosecutorial discretion”

This is true, but not in their minds.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is one, very prominent, exception stated in the text of the Fourth Amendment itself: reasonability. A reasonable search does not require a warrant. (And if I understand matters correctly – which is difficult, because the Fourth Amendment doesn’t actually specify – all a warrant does is override the individual’s refusal to agree that the search is reasonable.)

The dispute is over what qualifies a search as reasonable. Over the years, the courts have established many guiding principles to make that determination, and many people now think that the cumulative effect of that gradual development has been taken too far – but that single stated exception is what they’re all based on, and what is argued to make them constitutional.

Julie C. says:

court says...

Unfortunately, judges nowadays don’t interpret the Constitution and rule based on original intent. Now they try to come up with tortured reasoning to get what they want depending on their personal views. This is why it matters who appoints judges.

I’m glad this time it went in favor of the people but I have no confidence it will in the future. I am losing respect for judges in general due to the number of times we hear of some judge in a radical district overturning a decision that is obviously based on personal politics.

When will we hear a Supreme Court ruling on “sanctuary cities”? How can the Constitution support a locality claiming the right to ignore the laws they don’t agree with?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: court says...

I do not recall any law federal or state in which immigrants are to be treated in the manner in which they are now being treated – do you?

But apparently there are laws about how everyone is supposed to march lock step with stiff knees while they do the emperors bidding in disregard for any human decency.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: court says...

I do not recall any law federal or state in which immigrants are to be treated in the manner in which they are now being treated – do you?

Yes. California state law specifically directs non-compliance with immigration enforcement, which means treating immigrants in a manner that hinders Federal enforcement, such as disregarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer orders.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: "The right to ignore the laws they don't agree with?"

Like cannabis proscription enforcement and abortion access?

I think circumventing laws we don’t agree with was an accepted part of the system. When all laws are actually enforced at all times, we’re going to need a whole new, more precise system of laws.

Not a bad thing, as currently selective enforcement drives discrimination, such as against immigrants.

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