Do police have the right to go on private property — uninvited and without a warrant — to search a vehicle?
That’s the question the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to answer when the court takes up the case of a Virginia man who was arrested after a police officer walked onto his driveway and pulled back a tarp covering a stolen motorcycle.
Arguments are scheduled Tuesday in a case that could test the boundaries of an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that police obtain a warrant before searching a person, their home, papers or personal effects.
The exception dates back nearly a century, when federal agents did a warrantless search of a suspected bootlegger’s car looking for illegal alcohol. In that case, the Supreme Court found that a vehicle could be searched without a warrant as long as police have probable cause to believe it contains contraband or evidence of a crime. The court reasoned that because cars are readily mobile, they can be moved before police are able to obtain a warrant to search them.
The Virginia case started with two high-speed police chases of a distinctive orange and black Suzuki motorcycle.
During one chase, an Albemarle County police officer wrote down the motorcycle’s license plate and recorded images of it with his dashboard camera. The plate number led police to a man who said he sold the motorcycle to Ryan Austin Collins after telling him it was stolen.
An officer then looked at Collins’s Facebook page, which included several photos of an orange and black motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house his girlfriend rented in Charlottesville.
At trial, Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property and was sentenced to three years in prison, with all but two months suspended. He was not charged with eluding police.
Matthew Fitzgerald, an attorney with McGuireWoods, said the prominent Richmond law firm asked the Supreme Court to hear the case because lower courts have been split on whether the automobile exception applies on vehicles parked on private, residential property.
Fitzgerald argues that the exception does not apply in the Collins case because the motorcycle was parked within feet of the house. He argues that that falls within the curtilage — the immediate area around the house — so should have been protected by the Fourth Amendment search warrant requirement.
If officers are allowed to search vehicles within curtilage without obtaining a warrant, they could also creep into garages and carports to look for contraband in glove boxes, Fitzgerald said.
“This area around your house is really important. And so whether police come onto your property with probable cause alone and search your vehicles wherever they find them is something that should matter to a lot of people,” Fitzgerald said.
“If the vehicle exception applies wherever you find the vehicle, then that is a big hole in the warrant requirement.”
The Virginia Supreme Court, however, said that the officer’s warrantless search of the motorcycle was justified, finding that “there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a vehicle parked on private property yet exposed to public view.”
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office argues that the officer had “undisputed probable cause” to believe the motorcycle was stolen and had twice escaped police by taking off at dangerously fast speeds of up to 140 miles per hour.
After walking onto the driveway, the officer lifted its cover, recorded the license-plate number and vehicle identification number, and after determining that the motorcycle was stolen, replaced the cover.
“The officer’s daytime search of the motorcycle was brief, unintrusive, and limited in scope,” Acting Solicitor General Trevor Cox wrote in a brief filed with the Supreme Court.
Because of the automobile exception, “he was authorized to do it before the vehicle could be moved and elude police once again,” Cox wrote.
The case that prompted the Supreme Court to establish the automobile exception dates back to 1921, when Prohibition banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the U.S. Federal prohibition agents stopped two suspected bootleggers driving on a highway from Detroit to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
There was no visible contraband in the Oldsmobile roadster, but when one of the agents pounded his fist on the rear seat, he noticed it was harder than usual. He cut open the seat cushion and found 68 bottles of whiskey and gin.
The defendants tried to have the evidence suppressed, but the high court found that a vehicle could be searched without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe it contains evidence.
Cornell Law School professor Sherry Colb, whose research centers on the Fourth Amendment, said it’s surprising that the Supreme Court hasn’t settled the issue earlier.
“The automobile exception has been with us for a while, and this one area has remained unclear — whether the automobile exception to the warrant requirement applies to an automobile on a private driveway,” she said.