WASHINGTON, D.C. — Refusing to grant law enforcement yet another loophole to encroach on the rights of citizens to privacy in their homes, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police may not intrude on private property in order to carry out a warrantless search of a vehicle parked near a residence. In its 8-1 decision in Collins v. Virginia, the Court rejected Virginia’s claim that warrantless police searches of vehicles are allowed under the Fourth Amendment’s “automobile exception” regardless of where the vehicle is located. Under the “automobile exception,” police have greater leeway to search vehicles on public streets without a warrant.
In arguing against a dangerous expansion of the “automobile exception,” The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in the case urging the Supreme Court not to provide law enforcement with a warrantless means of bypassing the Fourth Amendment right of citizens to be secure within the privacy of their homes. In writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor echoed this concern: “To allow an officer to rely on the automobile exception to gain entry to a house or its curtilage for the purpose of conducting a vehicle search would unmoor the exception from its justifications, render hollow the Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage, and transform what was meant to be an exception into a tool with far broader application. Indeed, its name alone should make all this clear enough: It is, after all, an exception for automobiles.”
Attorneys Anand Agneshwar and Paige Hester Sharpe of Arnold & Porter Kay Scholer LLP assisted in advancing the Institute’s arguments against an expansion of the automobile exception.
“The ‘automobile exception’ arose out of the Prohibition era in order to crack down on bootleggers who were using vehicles to smuggle liquor,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Yet even with this exception on the books, police cannot merely disregard the Fourth Amendment whenever it suits their purposes. As the Supreme Court itself has recognized, ‘Illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing in that way, namely, by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure.’”
The case arose after Albemarle County police entered residential property without permission or a warrant, and lifted the tarp off a motorcycle in order to inspect its identification numbers and determine whether it had been stolen. Police suspected Ryan Collins to be the operator of a motorcycle involved in two separate high-speed incidents. Relying on a photo posted on Collins’ Facebook page of a motorcycle parked in front of a house, police determined that the house in the picture belonged to Collins’ girlfriend. Upon visiting the house, police saw a white tarp covering what appeared to be a motorcycle, along with a car, both of which were parked within a patio next to the house. Without any invitation, permission or warrant, police walked onto the private driveway, crossed over to the patio and lifted the tarp, revealing the motorcycle, its license plate and its Vehicle Identification Number. Using this information, police determined that the motorcycle was stolen and waited on a side street, monitoring the house. When Collins returned to the house, police arrested and charged him with receiving stolen property. At trial, Collins argued that the officer had performed a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment by trespassing onto private property and looking under the tarp. Virginia courts rejected Collins’ arguments, ruling that the search fell within the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception.