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Is a Warrant Necessary to Search a Vehicle Parked Near a Person's Home?

[caption id="attachment_1977" align="alignleft" width="665"] U.S. Supreme Court.[/caption] In Collins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court will decide whether police need a warrant to search a motor vehicle close to a person’s home. The justices will try to balance powerful Fourth Amendment pressures on both sides—the traditionally strong protection of privacy interests at a person’s home weighted against the traditionally low protection for privacy interests in automobiles. The Fourth Amendment generally requires police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search of persons or property. The core of the Fourth Amendment protection is the home. A warrant is presumptively required for police to search a home. This protection also extends to the immediate area surrounding one’s home, known as the “curtilage.” The curtilage is considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. A warrantless search within the curtilage, therefore, is also presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. But a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment have emerged throughout the years. For example, the “automobile exception” deems the search of a vehicle to be presumptively reasonable, even without a warrant, if probable cause exists. The rationale for this exception lies in the inherent mobility of the vehicle. That is, because an automobile is readily mobile, it may not be practical to secure a warrant before the vehicle is moved. Another rationale is that pervasive government regulation reduces expectations of privacy in vehicles. Collins v. Virginia lies in the intersection of these Fourth Amendment doctrines. It presents the question whether a police officer may search a vehicle parked within the curtilage of a home without first obtaining a warrant. In 2013, a driver on a black-and-orange motorcycle twice eluded police pursuit after traveling significantly over the speed limit in Albemarle County, Virginia. A few months later, Ryan Collins was involved in an unrelated matter at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and officers found his Facebook page. They reviewed numerous photographs of Collins with the same black-and-orange motorcycle parked at a house. The officers later identified the house as one that belonged to Collins’ girlfriend. When a police officer drove to the girlfriend’s house, he saw a motorcycle covered by a white tarp sitting in the driveway. The officer recognized a wheel peeking out from underneath the covering, so he walked onto the driveway, removed the tarp, and checked the vehicle identification number of the motorcycle. He verified that the motorcycle had been stolen, and then he approached the front door. Collins answered and admitted that he had bought the motorcycle without title. He was arrested for possession of stolen property. Collins moved to suppress the evidence obtained by the officer. The commonwealth argued that the search fell squarely within the automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Collins countered that the automobile exception did not apply because the motorcycle was located within the curtilage of the home. The trial court denied Collins’ motion. The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed the decision and held that exigent circumstances justified the search. The Supreme Court of Virginia upheld the decision, but for different reasons. It held that the automobile exception is a bright-line test, and it applies even when a vehicle is not immediately mobile. The U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to consider the issue. During oral argument, the justices struggled with the exact scope of the automobile exception. Counsel for Collins urged the justices to rule that the exception does not apply to a vehicle parked in the curtilage. By way of analogy, he argued that illegal drugs, such as cocaine, are equally as mobile as an automobile, but a search for cocaine in a home still generally requires a warrant. Justice Samuel Alito was openly skeptical of this argument. He observed that, had the motorcycle been parked a few feet away on the street, rather than in the driveway, the risk of mobility and lesser expectation of privacy would have been the same and the automobile exception would apply. The justices were also troubled by the rule proposed by Virginia. The commonwealth argued that the automobile exception is categorical, and all elements were present here—the officer had probable cause, and the vehicle could be moved quickly. Chief Justice John Roberts responded that this categorical rule would give police unqualified access to a private garage. He cited the movie "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," which features a luxury car stored in a glass-enclosed section of the house, and asked whether a police officer could enter the property and search that automobile because it is theoretically mobile. Justice Stephen Breyer raised a similar hypothetical, where “the mad art burglar” steals “The Thinker,” a 2,000-pound statue, and puts it in his glass house. Justice Breyer observed that the policeman cannot go into the house until he gets a warrant. The justices then discussed situations where exigent circumstances might justify a warrantless search, though all agreed that exigency is not the legal question before the court, as it was not addressed by the Supreme Court of Virginia. If the court chose to draw a line somewhere, the commonwealth argued, the sensible place is inside the home, not the curtilage. After the commonwealth suggested that an enclosed garage could be treated like the home, but a carport would not, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed concerns about a disproportionate effect on certain socio-economic classes. “You’re making a distinction between people who can buy houses with garages and people who are less well-heeled and only have a porch or a patio for the car instead of a garage,” she observed, “So that distinction seems to me really troublesome, between garage and carport.” Overall, the justices struggled with the proposed rules on both sides, but appeared slightly more receptive to Collins’ rule. A decision is expected by June. Stephen A. Miller practices in the commercial litigation group at Cozen O'Connor's Philadelphia office.  Prior to joining Cozen O'Connor, he clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court and served as a federal prosecutor for nine years in the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Pamela Dorian also practices in Cozen O'Connor's commercial litigation group. She received her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law and her B.A. from Pennsylvania State University.

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