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SCOTUS holds automobile exception is for automobiles, not houses

Collins v. Virginia, USSC No. 16-1027, 2018 WL 2402551, 5/29/18, reversing Collins v. Commonwealth, 790 S.E.2d 611 (Va. 2016); SCOTUSblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

Police learned a stolen motorcycle that had evaded them on two occasions was likely parked at a house where Collins stayed. When they got to the house, they saw a motorcycle parked in the driveway with a tarp over it. They walked up the driveway, lifted the tarp, and confirmed that it was the stolen bike. The Supreme Court now holds that, though the motorcycle was an automobile–and hence subject to the “automobile exception,” which dispenses with the warrant requirement where there’s probable cause to search a vehicle–this fact does not justify the officers’ invasion of the home’s curtilage to search it.

Justice Sotomayor delivers the majority opinion. Analytically it’s quite straightforward: the automobile exception means police can search a car with probable cause but no warrant–but only assuming they have the right to access the car in the first place. A simple hypothetical illustrates logic quite nicely:

Applying the relevant legal principles to a slightly different factual scenario confirms that this is an easy case. 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.

(Slip op. at 7).

Connecting the hypothetical to the facts of this case involves determining whether the spot the motorcycle was parked was within the home’s curtilage, and thus partook of the home’s strong protections against government intrusion. The majority concludes that it was; it was parked near the house in an area enclosed on three sides. It rejects the state’s request for a bright-line rule limiting Fourth Amendment protection to “a fixed, enclosed structure inside the curtilage like a garage,” noting such a rule

would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages in which to store their vehicles but deprive those persons without such resources of any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage. See United States v. Ross, 456 U. S. 798, 822 (1982) (“[T]he most frail cottage in the kingdom is absolutely entitled to the same guarantees of privacy as the most majestic mansion”).

(Slip op. at 14).

Justice Thomas concurs, agreeing that the search violated the Fourth Amendment, but expressing skepticism that the Court has the power (which it has exercised since Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961)) to impose the exclusionary rule on the state courts.

Justice Alito dissents, complaining that the motorcycle’s particular location in the driveway should not be the difference between a reasonable and unreasonable search.

As we noted in our prior post, this case changes Wisconsin law, at least insofar as State v. Marquardt, 2001 WI App 2219, 247 Wis. 2d 765, 635 N.W.2d 188, is read to permit warrantless search of a vehicle no matter where in a driveway it is parked.

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