The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police in Albemarle County, Virginia, should have left alone a motorcycle that was covered and parked immediately adjacent to a man’s home.
Officers, who were looking for a vehicle that allegedly had been used in criminal activity, went to the side of the house, uncovered the motorcycle, inspected and put the cover back on. Then they waited until the owner arrived home and arrested him.
Prosecutors argued the motorcycle was available for inspection by police under what’s known at the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment. However, John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, objected.
“The ‘automobile exception’ arose out of the Prohibition era in order to crack down on bootleggers who were using vehicles to smuggle liquor,” he said. “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 high court said the officer was required to have a warrant “to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein” and sent the case back to a lower court.
The lower court won’t be allowed to consider the evidence the officers obtained that day.
“We leave for resolution on remand whether Officer Rhodes’ warrantless intrusion on the curtilage of Collins’ house may have been reasonable on a different basis, such as the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement,” the 8-1 ruling said.
Explained the Rutherford Institute: “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.”
Rutherford argued against allowing the search results.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said: “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.”
The case rose when Albemarle County police entered residential property without permission or a warrant and lifted the tarp off a motorcycle 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,” Rutherford explained.
“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.”
The court determined that “seeing” into an area adjacent to a home isn’t the same thing as entering.
“So 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,” the court said.
Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter, arguing the officer simply saw what appeared to be evidence and walked 30 steps across a drive to look.
“By doing that, Rhodes invaded the home’s ‘curtilage.’ The court does not dispute that the motorcycle, when parked in the driveway, was just as mobile as it would have been had it been parked at the curb. Nor does the court claim that Officer Rhodes’s short walk up the driveway did petitioner or his girlfriend any harm. … But, the court insists, Rhodes could not enter the driveway without a warrant, and therefore his search of the motorcycle was unreasonable and the evidence obtained in that search must be suppressed,” he wrote.
“An ordinary person of common sense would react to the court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life. If that is the law, he exclaimed, ‘the law is a a– – a idiot,” he wrote, quoting Charles Dickens.
He explained a warrant shouldn’t have been required, only “probable cause” for the officer.