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You have a right to your privacy: A look at Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. 1 (2018)

By: Valerie Moss Andrews

On May 29, 2018, the United States Supreme Court held that officers cannot search a vehicle within the curtilage (the area surrounding or associated with a home) of a home without a warrant. This seems like an obvious conclusion for a criminal defense attorney, but for a more detailed understanding of this holding, it is necessary to look at why the Virginia Supreme Court thought officers could search a vehicle without a warrant while it was parked in the driveway of a home. The Virginia Supreme Court believed that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment applied, but the Supreme Court didn’t buy that argument (except for Justice Alito in his puzzling dissent).

Before I go into detail about the Fourth Amendment and the automobile exception, let me provide a quick preview of the facts:

A driver of an orange and black motorcycle committed two separate traffic infractions in front of two different officers and somehow eluded being pulled over during both incidents. Upon further investigation, both officers came to the conclusion that the motorcycle was likely stolen and in the possession of the Petitioner, Ryan Collins. The officers discovered photos of an orange and black motorcycle parked at the top of the driveway of a house and decided to drive there and investigate.

The house belonged to Collins’ girlfriend, and Collins was living there at the time. From the roadway, one of the officers saw what they thought was the motorcycle behind a tarp at the end of the driveway. The officer then decided, without a warrant, to walk to the house, lift the tarp and look at the motorcycle. After running the license plate, the officer discovered that the motorcycle was stolen and arrested Collins upon his arrival.

Collins was indicted for receiving stolen property. Collins’ defense attorney acted fast and filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle arguing that the officer had trespassed on the curtilage of the house without a warrant as required by the Fourth Amendment. The Virginia Supreme Court found that the officer had probable cause to believe the motorcycle was contraband, and therefore, the warrantless search was justified.

The Fourth Amendment gives people the right to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Because of this right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, officers must first obtain a warrant before searching someone or their “houses, papers and effects.” However, since the inception of the warrant requirement, the Court has carved out a number of exceptions. One of those exceptions is known as the “automobile exception.” The Court has found a necessary difference between a vehicle and a home and since vehicles are moveable objects, travel on public roadways and are subject to various licensing and governmental regulations, warrants aren’t always necessary to search a vehicle. As long as an officer has sufficient probable cause, they can search your vehicle.

However, to search a home and its curtilage without a warrant is not as easy. “[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013). Further, “[t]he protection afforded the curtilage is essentially a protection of families and personal privacy in an area intimately linked to the home, both physically and psychologically, where privacy expectations are most heightened.” California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207, 212-213 (1986). Therefore, an officer almost always needs a warrant to search a home unless some exigent circumstances apply.

In Collins, the Supreme Court found that the end of a driveway alongside a house is “curtilage” for purposes of Fourth Amendment protection. Further, the Supreme Court found that the officer “not only invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the item searched, i.e., the motorcycle, but also invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage of his home.” 584 U.S. at 7. The Supreme Court rightly found that the automobile exception did not apply here because clearly “the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.” Id.

The Court provided an excellent analogy in its conclusion:

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.

Id. The Court further found that the search would not fall under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. Under the plain view exception, no warrant is required to seize evidence in ‘plain view’ if the police are legitimately in the location from which the evidence can be viewed. Here, the Court found that “[a] plain-view seizure [] cannot be justified if it is effectuated by ‘unlawful trespass.’ Id. at 8.

All this case really does is solidify the Fourth Amendment protection we all have over our homes and its curtilage, and an officer’s ability to see inside curtilage is not the same as the right to enter curtilage without a warrant to obtain evidence. As the Court put it, “[s]o long as it is curtilage, a parking patio, or carport into which an officer can see from the street is no less entitled to protection from trespass and a warrantless search than a fully enclosed garage.” Id. at 13-14.

In conclusion, you have the right to privacy in your own home and its surroundings. Further, if an officer doesn’t have a warrant, and you don’t want them in your home or its curtilage, you can kindly ask them to leave.

To learn more about Valerie and her practice areas, click here.

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