WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is putting limits on the ability
of police to search vehicles when they do not have a search warrant.
The court sided 8-1 Tuesday with a Virginia man who complained that
police walked onto his driveway and pulled back a tarp covering his
motorcycle, which turned out to be stolen. They acted without a warrant,
relying on a line of Supreme Court cases generally allowing police to
search a vehicle without a warrant.
The justices said the automobile exception does not apply when searching vehicles parked adjacent to a home.
The court ruled in the case of Ryan Collins, who was arrested at the
home of his girlfriend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Collins had twice
eluded police in high-speed chases in which he rode an orange and black
The authorities used Collins’ Facebook page to eventually track the motorcycle to his girlfriend’s home.
Collins argued that police improperly entered private property uninvited and without a warrant.
Virginia’s Supreme Court said the case involved what the Supreme
Court has called the “automobile exception,” which generally allows
police to search a vehicle without a warrant if they believe the vehicle
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said for the court Tuesday that the state
court was wrong. Sotomayor said that constitutional protections for a
person’s home and the area surrounding it, the curtilage, outweigh the
police interest in conducting a vehicle search without a warrant.
“We decline Virginia’s invitation to extend the automobile exception
to permit a warrantless intrusion on a home or its curtilage,” Sotomayor
Collins is not out of the woods, however. A separate legal doctrine
allows warrantless searches in “exigent circumstances,” including
whether the evidence — in this case, the motorcycle — might disappear if
not looked for quickly. The justices ordered Virginia courts to
consider that issue.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying the police acted reasonably.
“If the motorcycle had been parked at the curb, instead of in the
driveway, it is undisputed that Rhodes could have searched it without
obtaining a warrant,” Alito said, referencing the officer who pulled
back the tarp.
Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority, but he wrote
separately to question whether the Supreme Court has the authority to
require states to suppress incriminating evidence that was acquired in
violation of the Constitution. Thomas said that telling states they must
apply the so-called federal exclusionary rule “is legally dubious.”
The case is Collins v. Virginia, 16-1027.