Supreme Court ruling bolsters Fourth Amendment

  • 31 May 2018
  • NormanL

Even motorcycles parked near the house are covered by the Fourth Amendment. Or at least that’s part of what the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, when it declined to give law enforcement the ability to conduct a search for a motorcyclist that lead Virginia police on a high speed chase.

There’s a lot more to this, so here’s how the invaluable SCOTUSblog discussed the case:

The Fourth Amendment normally requires police to have a warrant to conduct a search. But one exception to that general rule, known as the “automobile exception,” was at the heart of this case: It allows police to search a car without a warrant if the car is “readily mobile” and they have probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of a crime. But the justices today ruled that the exception does not justify an intrusion on the “curtilage” of a home – the area immediately surrounding the house, where residents expect privacy.

In a near-unanimous decision authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court began by making clear that the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked was part of the curtilage protected by the Fourth Amendment. The court then explained that the justification for the automobile exception doesn’t consider a resident’s privacy interest in his home and its curtilage at all; rather, the rationale rests on the twin ideas that cars can easily be moved and are subject to regulation simply by virtue of being on the roads. None of the Supreme Court’s cases, the court continued, indicates that the automobile exception allows a police officer to enter the home or its curtilage without a warrant to search a vehicle – if anything, the court has emphasized the need to treat “automobiles differently from houses.” “Given the centrality of the Fourth Amendment interest in the home and its curtilage and the disconnect between that interest and the justifications behind the automobile exception,” the court concluded, “we decline Virginia’s invitation to extend the automobile exception to permit a warrantless intrusion on a home or its curtilage.”

The court also rejected Virginia’s fallback argument, which would allow police officers to enter some parts of the curtilage (such as the driveway) without a warrant to search a car, but not the house or other structures inside the curtilage, such as a garage. Such a rule, Virginia suggested, would give police officers a bright line to use when determining whether they need a warrant.

The court dismissed that idea, noting that officers have long made such evaluations regularly before executing searches. “Virginia provides no reason to conclude that this practice has proved to be unadministrable, either generally or in this context.” Moreover, the court added, Virginia’s proposed rule would mean that people who can afford garages would receive more protection under the Constitution than those who cannot.

In short: police need a warrant to search the area near the home. Get the warrant, and they can do what they need to do.