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limit on Automobile Exception to Warrant Requirement

5/30/2018 11:48:00 AM

Supreme Court Decision

The automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.



Argued January 9, 2018—Decided May 29, 2018

During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame, Officer David Rhodes learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of petitioner Ryan Collins.  Officer Rhodes discovered photographs on Collins’ Facebook profile of an orange and black motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house, drove to the house, and parked on the street. From there, he could see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a white tarp parked in the same location as the motorcycle in the photograph. 

Without a search warrant, Office Rhodes walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp, confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen by running the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, replaced the tarp, and returned to his car to wait for Collins. 

When Collins returned, Officer Rhodes arrested him. The trial court denied Collins’ motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that Officer Rhodes violated the Fourth Amendment when he trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct a search, and Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property. 

The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed.  The State Supreme Court also affirmed, holding that the warrantless search was justified under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception.

Held: The automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.  Pp. 3– 14. 


JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court. This case presents the question whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein. It does not. ......

.....The Fourth Amendment provides in relevant part that the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”  This case arises 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.

....The Court has held that the search of an automobile can be reasonable without a warrant.  The Court first articulated the so-called automobile exception in Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132 (1925).  In that case, law enforcement officers had probable cause to believe that a car they observed traveling on the road contained illegal liquor. They stopped and searched the car, discovered and seized the illegal liquor, and arrested the occupants.  Id., at 134–136. The Court upheld the warrantless search and seizure, explaining that a “necessary difference” exists between searching “a store, dwelling house or other structure” and searching “a ship, motor boat, wagon or automobile” because a “vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.” Id., at 153. The “ready mobility” of vehicles served as the core justification for the automobile exception for many years. California v. Carney, 471 U. S. 386, 390 (1985) (citing, e.g., Cooper v. California, 386 U. S. 58, 59 (1967); Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U. S. 42, 51–52 (1970)).  Later cases then introduced an additional rationale based on “the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways.” Carney, 471 U. S., at 392.  As the Court explained in South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U. S. 364 (1976):

“Automobiles, unlike homes, are subjected to pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls, including periodic inspection and licensing requirements.  As an everyday occurrence, police stop and examine vehicles when license plates or inspection stickers have expired, or if other violations, such as exhaust fumes or excessive noise, are noted, or if headlights or other safety equipment are not in proper working order.”  Id., at 368.  In announcing each of these two justifications, the Court took care to emphasize that the rationales applied only to automobiles and not to houses, and therefore supported “treating automobiles differently from houses” as a constitutional matter. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U. S. 433, 441 (1973).  When these justifications for the automobile exception “come into play,” officers may search an automobile without having obtained a warrant so long as they have probable cause to do so. Carney, 471 U. S., at 392–393..... 

.....Like the automobile exception, the Fourth Amendment’s protection of curtilage has long been black letter law. “[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U. S. 1, 6 (2013). “At the Amendment’s ‘very core’ stands ‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’”  Ibid. (quoting Silverman v. United States, 365 U. S. 505, 511 (1961)). To give full practical effect to that right, the Court considers curtilage—“the area ‘immediately surrounding and associated with the home’”—to be “‘part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.’”  Jardines, 569 U. S., at 6 (quoting Oliver v. United States, 466 U. S. 170, 180 (1984)).  “The protection afforded the curtilage is essentially a protection of families and personal privacy in an area intimately linked to the home, both physically and psychologically, where privacy expectations are most heightened.” California v. Ciraolo, 476 U. S. 207, 212–213 (1986). When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred. Jardines, 569 U. S., at 11. Such conduct thus is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant....

...In physically intruding on the curtilage of Collins’ home to search the motorcycle, Officer Rhodes not only invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the item searched, i.e., the motorcycle, but also invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage of his home.  The question before the Court is whether the automobile exception justifies the invasion of the curtilage.2 The answer is no. ..... 

.......JUSTICE THOMAS, concurring. I join the Court’s opinion because it correctly resolves the Fourth Amendment question in this case.  Notably, the only reason that Collins asked us to review this question is because, if he can prove a violation of the Fourth Amendment, our precedents require the Virginia courts to apply the exclusionary rule and potentially suppress the incriminating evidence against him. I write separately because I have serious doubts about this Court’s authority to impose that rule on the States. The assumption that state courts must apply the federal exclusionary rule is legally dubious, and many jurists have complained that it encourages “distort[ions]” in substantive Fourth Amendment law......

......JUSTICE ALITO, dissenting. The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable” searches. What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable.  The Court’s decision is not.






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