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Unreasonable Search and Seizure of Motorcycles and Driveways

On Behalf of | Aug 14, 2018 | Business Litigation

Collins v. Virginia, ____ U.S. ____, No. 16-1027 (29 May 2018)

This criminal case began when Ryan Collins bought a motorcycle without a title under circumstances alerting a reasonable person that the motorcycle was stolen.  The motorcycle had a distinctive appearance.  It was orange and black with an extended frame.  Over a period of a few weeks, two police officers saw the motorcycle commit traffic infractions, but each time the motorcycle evaded being stopped.  Upon further investigation, the officers learned that the motorcycle was probably stolen and in the possession of Collins.  The police found a Facebook page with a photograph showing a black and orange motorcycle parked at the top of a driveway beside a house.  They later learned that Collins’s girlfriend lived at the house, and Collins stayed there a few nights per week.

Acting on this information, one of the officers went to the house and saw a motorcycle under a tarp parked at the top of the driveway next to the house and only a few feet from a side door entrance to the house.  The officer walked to the top of the driveway, lifted the tarp, got the license plate number and vehicle identification number, and confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen.  The officer did not have a search warrant.  The officer waited, and when Collins returned to the house, he admitted possession of the motorcycle and was arrested.  The trial court denied Collins’s motion to suppress, and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed, citing the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

The Fourth Amendment says:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Fourth Amendment expressly refers to “houses,” and says nothing about the grounds immediately around a house, an area known as the “curtilage.”  The Fourth Amendment’s protection of the curtilage has long been black letter law. Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013).    The Supreme Court considers “the area immediately surrounding the home” to be “part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.” Jardines, 569 U.S. at 6.  The curtilage is an area adjacent to a home and to which the activity of home life extends. Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 182, n. 12 (1984).  There is no exact legal rule measuring how far the curtilage extends from a house, and it is not necessary for the curtilage to be enclosed by a fence.

The Supreme Court said that if the police physically intrude on the curtilage to search for evidence, then a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred and is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.  Here, the motorcycle was parked within the curtilage, and the police officer, without a warrant, intruded into the curtilage to inspect the motorcycle.

Does the automobile exception justify the warrantless search in this case?  The Supreme Court first articulated the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925).  The ready mobility of vehicles served as the core justification for many years.  Later cases introduced an additional rationale based on the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable or traveling on the public highways. California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976).  With either justification, the police may search an automobile without a warrant only if the police have probable cause to do so. Carney, 471 U.S. at 392-393.  These two justifications apply only to automobiles and not to houses. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973).

The Court held that the automobile exception did not justify the warrantless invasion of the curtilage.  The scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself. Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996).  The automobile exception does not give the police the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle.  Any other rule would untether the automobile exception from the justifications underlying it. Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___, ___ (2014)(slip op. at 10).

Under the plain-view doctrine, any valid warrantless seizure of incriminating evidence requires that the police have a lawful right to access the object itself. Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136-137 (1990).  A plain-view seizure cannot be justified if it is effectuated by unlawful trespass, Soldad v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56, 66 (1992), which is what happened here.

The Supreme Court has held that absent an exception to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances, officers may not enter a home to make an arrest without a warrant, even when they have probable cause.  Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 587-590 (1990).  The same rule applies to searches, including searches of the curtilage.  To search the curtilage, the police must have a warrant, unless there is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.  The Court remanded the case for a decision on whether the exigent circumstances exception might apply.

John Polk is a Special Counsel at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. John can be reached at [email protected].