Under the Fourth Amendment, does the automobile exception allow a police officer to search a motorcycle parked near a house on private property without a warrant?
This case, in which a police officer searched a stolen motorcycle on private property without a warrant, encapsulates a battle between two conflicting Fourth Amendment doctrines. Collins, arrested for receiving stolen property, argues that the police are forbidden from conducting a warrantless search of the area surrounding his home—the curtilage, which receives the same special constitutional protections as the home itself. Collins maintains that allowing the police to search his curtilage erodes Fourth Amendment rights and eliminates an important constitutional constraint on searches. Virginia counters that the officer’s search was justified by the automobile exception because, people have lowered expectations of privacy in their automobiles, which are heavily regulated property. Furthermore, as automobiles can be quickly moved out of a warrant’s jurisdiction, Virginia contends that requiring the police to wait for a warrant is impractical and would impede police investigations. How the Court decides on the constitutionality of the search will determine whether the automobile exception applies to vehicles on private property, or if that exception is superseded by the protections of curtilage.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter private property, approach a house and search a vehicle parked a few feet from the house.
In June and July 2013, Albemarle County police officers twice recorded a distinctive black and orange motorcycle eluding police pursuit by traveling significantly over the speed limit. Collins v. Commonwealth, 790 S.E.2d 611, 612–13 (Va. 2016). The police car video camera photographed the motorcycle’s license plates and driver. Id. at 613.
After running the plates from the photographs, the officers discovered that the plates had been registered to Eric Jones, but were no longer active. Id. The officers questioned Jones about the motorcycle and learned that Jones had sold the motorcycle to Ryan Austin Collins in April 2013. Id. Jones informed the officers that he had warned Collins that the motorcycle did not have title and was stolen. Id.
Though the officers were unable to identify the motorcycle driver’s face from the photographs, the officers concluded that, based on the motorcyclist’s clothes, the same motorcyclist—likely Collins—had eluded them in both incidents. Id. In September 2013, when Collins was involved in an unrelated Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) matter, the officers questioned him. Id. The officers asked Collins if he knew anything about the black and orange motorcycle. Id. Collins denied having any knowledge of the motorcycle, and claimed that he had not driven a motorcycle in months. Id. at 614.
Despite Collins’ denials, the officers continued the investigation. Id. On Collins’s Facebook page, the officers found numerous photographs of himself with a black and orange motorcycle at his house. Id. The officers subsequently learned the location of the house in the photographs. Id.
Officer David Rhodes drove to Collins’s house and parked on the street. Id. While standing on the street, he saw a motorcycle covered by a white tarp, with one wheel peeking out from beneath the covering. Id. Based on the exposed wheel, Rhodes recognized the motorcycle as having the same design and shape as the black and orange motorcycle from the June and July incidents. Id. Officer Rhodes walked onto Collins’s driveway and removed the tarp, ran the VIN of the motorcycle, and verified that it was the same stolen motorcycle that had been registered to Jones. Id. Collins admitted that he had bought the motorcycle from Jones without title. Id. Rhodes subsequently arrested Collins for receiving stolen property. Id. Upon searching Collins’s pockets incident to the arrest, Rhodes found a key to the motorcycle. Id.
After a grand jury indicted Collins for possession of stolen property, Collins moved to suppress the evidence obtained by Rhodes. Id. at 614. Collins alleged that the evidence should be suppressed because Rhodes violated his Fourth Amendment rights by trespassing onto his property without probable cause or a warrant. Id. at 614–15. In opposition to the motion, the Commonwealth of Virginia argued that, in Carroll v. United States and Maryland v. Dyson, the U.S. Supreme Court established an automobile exception to the probable cause requirement, and determined that it is lawful to search a vehicle without a warrant because automobiles are easily moved. Id. at 615. Collins countered that, because his motorcycle was parked on private property, the automobile exception did not apply. Id. The Circuit Court of Albemarle County (the “trial court”) found that there was probable cause for the search and denied Collins’s motion. Id. at 615. Collins was subsequently convicted of the charges against him. Id. at 612.
Collins appealed his case to the Court of Appeals of Virginia (the “Court of Appeals”), arguing that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. Id. at 615. The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the trial court. Although the Court of Appeals recognized that the automobile exception might not apply in Collins’s case, it determined that Rhodes had probable cause to believe the motorcycle was the one from the incidents and that the search was justified under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. Id. at 615–16, 619.
Collins appealed the Court of Appeals’s decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia. Id. at 612. The Supreme Court of Virginia held that Rhodes had probable cause to search the motorcycle, and determined that the automobile exception applied, even though the vehicle was parked on private property and was not immediately mobile. Id. at 617–19. The Supreme Court of Virginia’s reasoning differed from the lower courts, but it held that it could affirm Collins’s convictions based on the “right result for the wrong [or different] reason” doctrine. Id. at 621. Collins petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted on September 28, 2017. Brief of Petitioner, Ryan Austin Collins at 3.
THE FOURTH AMENDMENT AND THE AUTOMOBILE EXCEPTION
Collins claims that the automobile exception does not apply, arguing that the automobile exception is limited by the location of the vehicle. Brief for Petitioner, Ryan Austin Collins at 16. Collins argues that the Coolidge v. New Hampshire majority rejected the view held by the Virginia Supreme Court here, and held that a search and seizure of an automobile is per se unreasonable when conducted on the defendant’s property without a warrant. Id. Collins contends that the automobile exception has a limited scope, asserting that Fourth Amendment protection against curtilage searches does not disappear in the context of automobiles. Id. Collins further claims that there are two main rationales for the automobile exception—inherent mobility and reduced expectations of privacy—neither of which, Collins argues, justifies expanding the exception to cover curtilage searches involving an automobile. Id. at 19–23. Collins argues that the inherent mobility rationale is insufficient to support this expansion of the exception by noting that the Court has refused to permit warrantless home searches for drugs, which are also easily removed, hidden, or destroyed. Id. at 21. Finally, Collins points out that, while pervasive regulations diminish reasonable expectations of privacy in public streets, such regulations do not apply to vehicles parked in garages or private driveways. Id. at 37.
The Commonwealth of Virginia (“Virginia”) counters that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment applies in this case, and that the motorcycle’s parked location in the driveway of the home does not have a constitutional significance. Brief for Respondent, Commonwealth of Virginia at 42–45. Virginia highlights two elements of the automobile exception that apply when the vehicle is not currently in use on the highway: the vehicle’s readily mobile nature and whether the vehicle is parked in a place not regularly used for residential purposes. Brief for Respondent, Commonwealth of Virginia at 43. Virginia points out that, in California v. Carney, the Supreme Court applied the automobile exception to vehicles that were not on public highways. Id. at 38. In Carney, even though a motor home was parked in a public parking lot, the automobile exception applied because the motor home was readily mobile and parked in a way that made it clearly appear as being used as a vehicle, and not a residence. Id. at 38–39. Virginia asserts that, because Collin’s motorcycle was readily mobile and located in a residential driveway, the two required elements of the automobile exception were met. Id. Virginia asserts that the rule has been regularly applied and remains clear that “if a car is readily mobile, and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment permits police to search the vehicle without more.” Id. at 26.
DRIVEWAY: A “CURTILAGE TO THE HOME”?
Collins argues that the Fourth Amendment ensures the protection of the home by protecting both the four walls of a house and its curtilage—the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home. Brief for Petitioner at 11. Collins maintains that this area, along with the actual residence, is where privacy expectations are at their highest because a curtilage is linked inextricably to the home. Id. at 12. Collins maintains that driveways are within the curtilage of the home because the longstanding common law history repeatedly affirmed that the house’s protections included barns, stables, and cow-houses. Id. Recognizing that United States v. Dunn has held that a 200-acre ranch, separated from a house by 60 feet and a fence is outside the curtilage through a four-factor analysis—1) the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home; 2) whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home; 3) the nature of the uses to which the area is put; and 4) the steps taken by the resident to shield the area from public observation—Collins argues that Dunn’s four-factors test is not controlling in this case. Id. at 33. Collins contends that Dunn’s four-factor test is a useful analytical tool but does not control all curtilage questions. Id. For example, Collins points out that front porches were held to be a curtilage in Florida v. Jardines even though they are rarely within an enclosure that surrounds the home, and frequently do not have a fence or gate to shield activities from travelers passing by. Id. at 33–34.
Virginia counters that a driveway is not in the curtilage to the home in this case. Brief for Respondent at 55. Virginia adds that, under United States v. Dunn, this “curtilage” question should be resolved through the four-factor analysis. Id. at 46–47. While Virginia admits that the “physical proximity” factor tilts in favor of a curtilage finding, Virginia asserts that the remaining factors weigh against the curtilage finding. Id. at 47. Virginia argues that the driveway was not within an enclosure that also surrounded the home, and that the driveway was used only to park vehicles, without any fence or gate to shield activities in the driveway from passersby. Id. at 55. Virginia argues that the motorcycle was not parked in the curtilage because the driveway did not “harbor an intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.” Id. at 55. Virginia cautions against limiting the scope of the automobile exception, which would completely undermine the utility of the exception. Id. at 34. Because an automobile parked on a residential driveway with ready access to the road can be moved as quickly as automobiles parked on public roads, Virginia asserts that the mobility rationale does not evaporate just because the automobile is a few feet into the driveway. Id. at 43–44. Finally, Virginia asserts that the reduced expectation of privacy derives from the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on public highways; it is irrelevant whether the automobile is actually being driven or parked in the curtilage. Id. at 44.
“EXIGENT CIRCUMSTANCES” REQUIREMENTS
Collins argues that the Court should not expand the automobile exception because the current law sufficiently covers the legitimate needs for searches in curtilage. Brief for Petitioner at 27–28. Collins argues that, when there is actually no time for a warrant, the exigency doctrine is enough to solve the problem. Id. at 27. Collins illustrates the sufficiency of the exigency doctrine by citing Missouri v. McNeely as rejecting a categorical exception to the warrant requirement for blood tests in drunk-driving cases, as well as Riley v. California as rejecting a categorical exception to the warrant requirement for cell-phone searches. I Collins cites United States v. Beene to add that the Fifth Circuit and at least several states already require exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search when a vehicle is parked in a defendant’s residential driveway. Id. at 28. Collins maintains that Scher v. United States shows that a categorical automobile exception is unnecessary, because a search of a vehicle parked on a curtilage can be justified under specific exigent circumstances, such as lawful arrests. Id. at 29.
Virginia counters that even the Fifth Circuit, which Collins cites for support, upheld the warrantless search of a car parked in a defendant’s driveway based on the finding of “exigent circumstances” in United States v. Reed. Brief in Opposition at 28. Virginia maintains that the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania v. Labron and in Maryland v. Dyson held that there is no separate exigency requirement to the automobile exception, and the ready mobility of automobiles creates a “categorical exigency” that justifies the warrantless search under probable cause. Brief for Respondent at 22. Because there is no separate exigency requirement to the automobile exception, Virginia asserts that Officer Rhodes also did not need to wait until Collins moved the motorcycle, especially given the difficulty of pursuing Collin’s motorcycle in two previous occasions. Id. at 24.
DOES EXPANDING THE WARRANT EXCEPTION UNACCEPTABLY ERODE CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS OR PROVIDE NECESSARY SUPPORT TO POLICE WORK?___
The Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund and other educational, legal, and social welfare organizations (collectively “CLDEF”), in support of Collins, argue that requiring probable cause alone is insufficient protection for the home and curtilage. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund et al., in Support of Petitioner at 17. Rather, CLDEF contends that requiring police to obtain a warrant in such situations is important because it forces the police to provide specific grounds for their intended search, thus preemptively limiting the search’s scope and preventing the police from justifying the extent of a search after it occurs. Id. at 18. The Rutherford Institute, in support of Collins, agrees that a search’s constitutionality depends on how that search is conducted, not what it uncovers. Brief of Amicus Curiae The Rutherford Institute, in Support of Petitioner at 5. The Rutherford Institute maintains that allowing the police to avoid obtaining a warrant any time an automobile is involved would undercut a significant constitutional safeguard. Id. at 9.
Virginia disagrees that warrantless searches leave individuals with such scanty protections. Brief for Respondent at 29–31. Instead, Virginia maintains that a lawful search must still be reasonable, justified by probable cause, and limited in scope. Id. These requirements constrict the extent of warrantless searches to ensure searches are “only minimally invasive.” Id. at 32. Furthermore, Virginia alleges that requiring a warrant to search automobiles, even cars parked in a driveway, would hamper police investigations. Id. at 16. Virginia argues that, because police officers may be unable to predict when probable cause will arise, waiting for a warrant would interrupt police work. Id. Virginia also reasons that since automobiles are inherently mobile, they can quickly be moved out of a specific warrant’s jurisdiction and may reach speeds too dangerous for police pursuit. Id. at 24. Consequently, waiting for a warrant to search an automobile is impractical, and would force police to forgo opportunities to conduct searches. Id. According to Virginia, permitting police to search an automobile without a warrant is a “flexible, common-sense exception” to the typical warrant requirement. Id. at 15.
IMPACTS OF VEHICLE SEARCHES ON PRIVATE PROPERTY ON THE PROTECTIONS OF CURTILAGE
In support of Collins, Restore the Fourth, Inc. (“Restore the Fourth”) alleges that allowing the police to search automobiles within the home’s curtilage carves out unprecedented exceptions to Fourth Amendment protections. Brief of Amicus Curiae Restore the Fourth, Inc., in Support of Petitioner at 13–14. Restore the Fourth contends that this is contrary to the clear lines the Fourth Amendment draws; creating a “garage exception” unconstitutionally divides the home into different spheres of protections. Id. at 14, 21. If the Court allows the search in this case, Restore the Fourth warns that police, with probable cause, may conduct warrantless searches anywhere they believe there is a stolen automobile—including the home. Id. at 17. Additionally, the Cato Institute argues, in support of Collins, that automobiles deserve the same protections as any other container or structure located on the curtilage. Brief of Amicus Curiae The Cato Institute, in Support of Petitioner at 14. The Cato Institute maintains that, if police can search an automobile on private property without a warrant, they can also conduct such a search of any other portable container. Id. at 15.
Virginia counters that limiting a search based completely on curtilage would impede police investigations. Brief for Respondent at 46. Virginia contends that allowing police to search an automobile without a warrant, regardless of that automobile’s location, is an easily administrable, bright-line rule. Id. Virginia claims that requiring police officers to determine the boundaries of curtilage and whether there are sufficient exigent circumstances to overcome curtilage’s protections would result in inconsistent and possibly erroneous outcomes. Id. at 47. According to Virginia, because there are “hundreds of thousands of involuntary [automobile] searches” each year, searches conducted on private property would become constitutionally vulnerable. Id. at 48. Furthermore, Virginia argues that, if there must be a limit to warrantless searches of automobiles, it is more appropriate to draw that line at the entrance to the home or an enclosed structure; establishing this Fourth Amendment boundary would prevent police from needing to administer a confusing curtilage analysis, while still protecting privacy in property. Id. at 49–50
- Sherry F. Colb, The US Supreme Court Considers the Scope of the Automobile Exception, Justia (Oct. 11, 2017).
- Lyle Denniston, Cars, Other Vehicles, and the Constitution, Constitution Daily (Sept. 29, 2017).