The Fourth Amendment normally requires police to have a warrant to conduct a search. But one exception to that general rule, known as the “automobile exception,” was at the heart of this case: It allows police to search a car without a warrant if the car is “readily mobile” and they have probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of a crime. But the justices today ruled that the exception does not justify an intrusion on the “curtilage” of a home – the area immediately surrounding the house, where residents expect privacy.
In a near-unanimous decision authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court began by making clear that the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked was part of the curtilage protected by the Fourth Amendment. The court then explained that the justification for the automobile exception doesn’t consider a resident’s privacy interest in his home and its curtilage at all; rather, the rationale rests on the twin ideas that cars can easily be moved and are subject to regulation simply by virtue of being on the roads. None of the Supreme Court’s cases, the court continued, indicates that the automobile exception allows a police officer to enter the home or its curtilage without a warrant to search a vehicle – if anything, the court has emphasized the need to treat “automobiles differently from houses.” “Given the centrality of the Fourth Amendment interest in the home and its curtilage and the disconnect between that interest and the justifications behind the automobile exception,” the court concluded, “we decline Virginia’s invitation to extend the automobile exception to permit a warrantless intrusion on a home or its curtilage.”
The court also rejected Virginia’s fallback argument, which would allow police officers to enter some parts of the curtilage (such as the driveway) without a warrant to search a car, but not the house or other structures inside the curtilage, such as a garage. Such a rule, Virginia suggested, would give police officers a bright line to use when determining whether they need a warrant.
The court dismissed that idea, noting that officers have long made such evaluations regularly before executing searches. “Virginia provides no reason to conclude that this practice has proved to be unadministrable, either generally or in this context.” Moreover, the court added, Virginia’s proposed rule would mean that people who can afford garages would receive more protection under the Constitution than those who cannot.
The court left open the possibility that Virginia could still win its case against Collins under another theory – for example, by arguing that another exception to the warrant requirement might apply because of the possibility that Collins could have moved his motorcycle quickly. The court therefore sent the case back to the state courts for more proceedings.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate opinion in which he agreed with the majority’s resolution of the Fourth Amendment question. But Thomas stressed that the case was before the justices because, if Collins is correct and his Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the state courts would have to apply the exclusionary rule, which prohibits the government from using evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution, and “potentially suppress the incriminating evidence against him.” Thomas expressed “serious doubts” about the Supreme Court’s authority to require states to follow the exclusionary rule, which is “not rooted in the Constitution or a federal statute,” and he urged the court to take up that question.
Justice Samuel Alito was the court’s lone dissenter. He emphasized that if the motorcycle had been parked at the curb instead of in the driveway, the officer would not have needed a warrant. So why should the officer need one, Alito queried, to “walk 30 feet or so up the driveway”? “An ordinary person of common sense,” Alito suggested, “would react to the Court’s decision the way” a Charles Dickens character “famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life. If that is the law, he exclaimed, ‘the law is a ass—a idiot.’” Moreover, Alito added, the only real question in the case is whether the officer’s search of the motorcycle was reasonable – which, in his opinion, it was.