Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (May. 29, 2018)

The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit an officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home to search a vehicle parked there. Officer McCall saw the driver of an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame commit a traffic infraction. The driver eluded McCall’s attempt to stop the motorcycle. A few weeks later, Officer Rhodes saw an orange and black motorcycle traveling well over the speed limit, but the driver got away from him, too. The officers compared notes, determined that the two incidents involved the same motorcyclist, and that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of Ryan Collins. After discovering photographs on Collins’ Facebook page showing an orange and black motorcycle parked at the top of the driveway of a house, Rhodes tracked down the address of the house, drove there, and parked on the street. It was later established that Collins’ girlfriend lived in the house and that Collins stayed there a few nights per week. From the street, Rhodes saw what appeared to be a motorcycle with an extended frame covered with a white tarp, parked at the same angle and in the same location on the driveway as in the Facebook photo. Rhodes, who did not have a warrant, walked toward the house. He stopped to take a photograph of the covered motorcycle from the sidewalk, and then walked onto the residential property and up to the top of the driveway to where the motorcycle was parked. Rhodes removed the tarp, revealing a motorcycle that looked like the one from the speeding incident. He ran a search of the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, which confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen. Rhodes photographed the uncovered motorcycle, put the tarp back on, left the property, and returned to his car to wait for Collins. When Collins returned, Rhodes approached the door and knocked. Collins answered, agreed to speak with Rhodes, and admitted that the motorcycle was his and that he had bought it without title. Collins was charged with receiving stolen property. He unsuccessfully sought to suppress the evidence that Rhodes obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle. He was convicted and his conviction was affirmed on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. The Court characterized the case as arising “at the intersection of two components of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and the protection extended to the curtilage of a home.” After reviewing the law on these doctrines, the Court turned to whether the location in question is curtilage. It noted that according to photographs in the record, the driveway runs alongside the front lawn and up a few yards past the front perimeter of the house. The top portion of the driveway that sits behind the front perimeter of the house is enclosed on two sides by a brick wall about the height of a car and on a third side by the house. A side door provides direct access between this partially enclosed section of the driveway and the house. A visitor endeavoring to reach the front door would have to walk partway up the driveway, but would turn off before entering the enclosure and instead proceed up a set of steps leading to the front porch. When Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside this partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house. The Court concluded that the driveway enclosure here is properly considered curtilage. The Court continued, noting that by physically intruding on the curtilage, the officer not only invaded the defendant’s fourth amendment interest in the item searched—the motorcycle—but also his fourth amendment interest in the curtilage of his home. Finding the case an “easy” one, the Court concluded that the automobile exception did not justify an invasion of the curtilage. It clarified: “the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.” The Court rejected Virginia’s request that it expand the scope of the automobile exception to permit police to invade any space outside an automobile even if the Fourth Amendment protects that space. It continued:

Just as an officer must have a lawful right of access to any contraband he discovers in plain view in order to seize it without a warrant, and just as an officer must have a lawful right of access in order to arrest a person in his home, so, too, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage.

It also rejected Virginia’s argument that the Court’s precedent indicates that the automobile exception is a categorical one that permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime, anywhere, including in a home or curtilage. For these and other reasons discussed in the Court’s opinion, the Court held that “the automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.” It left for resolution on remand whether Rhodes’ warrantless intrusion on the curtilage may have been reasonable on a different basis, such as the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.