Come Back With a Warrant!

Posted on Monday, March 29th, 2021 at 5:04 pm    

Finally! A U.S. Supreme Court decision that doesn’t chip away at our Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court voted 8-1 earlier this year to prevent law enforcement from searching motor vehicles parked close to a suspect’s home without a search warrant.

The decision involved a case out of Virginia where a suspect had eluded officers twice on a motorcycle reaching speeds of 140 mph. In Collins v. Virginia, an officer later spotted what appeared to be the motorcycle draped in a tarp beside a residence. He went onto the property and lifted up the tarp to reveal the tag number. After running the number he discovered the motorcycle was stolen. A subsequent arrest was made.

How might this affect you? This decision will limit the ability of law enforcement to search your vehicle parked on private property. Obviously the level of exigency isn’t present for a vehicle parked in your driveway as opposed one being stopped on the side of a highway.

Limiting the Automobile Exception

The Fourth Amendment protects all of us against unlawful searches or seizures. Generally, a warrant is required and must be supported by probable cause. However, there are a few exceptions including the automobile exception. This exception to the Fourth Amendment allows an officer to conduct a warrantless search on the scene if the vehicle is “readily mobile”. The officer must also show probable cause to believe there is contraband in the vehicle. Examples would include a glass pipe laying in plain view or the odor of marijuana emitting from the vehicle.

Obviously automobiles can be driven around and parked in public places. People can generally see inside of them through the windows. Also, automobiles are easy to move from one place to another making it easier to dispose of evidence inside. Therefore, the rationale behind the automobile exception is: (1) because you generally have a lowered expectation of privacy in your automobile; and (2) there is an ease with which you could dispose of the contraband before an officer could seek a search warrant.

However, when your vehicle is parked close to your home (within the curtilage) your expectation of privacy is not lowered. The protected area would likely include driveways close to the house, porches, and walkways. This Supreme Court decision says that the automobile exception stops short of allowing warrantless searches of cars parked in a suspect’s driveway.

The Opinion

Justice Sotomayor wrote: “Nothing in our case law . . . suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant.”

The Court basically refused to apply the automobile exception to include searches of vehicles on private property. “The scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself… nothing in our case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or it’s curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant.”

What does all this mean? If you’re riding dirty, you had better park your hoopty-wagon next to the house and not along the side of the street. While this ruling does not mean officers can never search a vehicle outside the curtilage of a residence under the automobile exception, it applies constitutional limitations and restricts the carte blanche application of this 4th Amendment exception.

The Law Offices of David L. Powell can help if you or a loved one has been charged with possession of drugs or paraphernalia. Call 479-222-6773 to schedule a free consultation with an aggressive Fort Smith criminal defense attorney. (Also licensed in Oklahoma)

This blog is for educational purposes as well as to give you general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. In reading this blog you understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the author. Use this information at your own risk as this blog may not reflect the most current legal developments. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your state.