Collins v. Virginia and the 'Automobile Exception'

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of the United States took a rare step towards further protecting our rights under the Fourth Amendment. We have seen the Fourth Amendment continuously watered down over the past decade, but the decision in Collins v. Virginia should give all champions of justice a little more hope that the times may be changing.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a single sentence containing only 54 words, but it has been the subject of countless Supreme Court rulings interpreting its application to situations routinely encountered by law enforcement personnel in their interaction with average citizens. An example of this is the recent decision by the Court in Collins v. Virginia, which began its way through the state courts after a police investigation to find a speeding motorcyclist led officers to a driveway and a key piece of evidence hidden under a tarp.

Fourth Amendment: Limiting government intrusion

Concerns about the power of government and its ability to intrude into the lives of the average person prompted adoption of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 as one of the first 10 amendments now known as the Bill of Rights. Protection of your right to privacy and your right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion comes from how courts interpret the following 54 words of the amendment:

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 guiding principle underlying Supreme Court decisions applying the Fourth Amendment to limit searches conducted by law enforcement has been the presence of an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy in a given situation. For example, a person walking along the street with a backpack has an expectation of privacy regarding its contents that could be considered to be reasonable. Carrying something in a clear plastic bag does not offer the same element of privacy as to its contents, so any expectation of privacy by the person carrying the bag would be unreasonable under the circumstances.

The extent of Fourth Amendment protection at home

A police intrusion into your home is presumed to be unreasonable and in violation of the Fourth Amendment in the absence of a search warrant. The area protected under this principle extends beyond the interior of your home to an outside area known as the "curtilage," which is the area immediately surrounding the home.

The question before the Court in Collins v. Virginiainvolved the allowable activities of a police officer conducting a warrantless search in a driveway of a private home that would normally be curtilage. A Virginia police officer searching for a motorcycle operator who eluded police at speeds as high as 140 mph got a lead on the motorcycle from a picture posted to Facebook matching the color and design of the motorcycle being sought.

The officer went to the address of the home where the picture was taken and saw what appeared to be the shape of a motorcycle under a tarp in the driveway. Acting without a search warrant, the officer went onto the property, lifted the tarp to obtain the plate and vehicle identification numbers, used those numbers to confirm the motorcycle was stolen, and arrested Ryan Collins when he returned to the house.

Defense efforts to challenge the actions of the police officer as violating the Fourth Amendment by entering upon the curtilage of the property to conduct the search were rejected by the state courts in Virginia. Although they acknowledged the officer was in the curtilage area, the state appellate court relied upon the automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to rule against the defense.

The exception gives law enforcement officers the ability to search a motor vehicle without the need to first obtain a search warrant. The exception requires proof of the ability of the suspect to quickly move the vehicle and of the existence of probable cause to believe evidence or a crime or contraband is present in the vehicle.

Supreme Court rejects extending automobile exception

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Virginia court by rejecting the use of the automobile exception to justify the police officer's warrantless search conducted in the curtilage of the home. The Court refused to use Collins as the vehicle to expand the automobile exception to the extent the Virginia courts had gone in upholding the search absent proof of the ability of Ryan Collins, who was not even home at the time the police officer entered the driveway, to abscond with the motorcycle.

Justice Sotomayor was critical of the Virginia appellate court for suggesting the motorcycle was not within a constitutionally protected area because it was not within the house, garage or other fixed structure within the curtilage. Such reasoning, according to Justice Sotomayor, would offer Fourth Amendment protection only to those individuals financially capable of building structures to protect their motor vehicles, was never the intent of the drafters of the Constitution.

The decision by the Court does not free Mr. Collins from further legal issues in Virginia. By sending the case back to the state, the Court leaves the door open for prosecutors to make another effort to justify the search.

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