Update on Collins v. Virginia: The Supreme Court Ruling
In a recent blog, we discussed the Collins v. Virginia case, which was pending before the Supreme Court of the United States at the time. The Supreme Court just issued its written opinion on May 29, 2018.
To recap, the case drew into question whether police officers can search the driveway of a house without a warrant due to the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The police located a motorcycle sitting on the defendant’s driveway under a tarp and believed that the distinctively painted motorcycle had been reported stolen. They went up the driveway and took the tarp off, found the stolen motorcycle, and arrested the defendant for possession of stolen property.
The defendant fought the arrest all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the “curtilage” of his home (the area immediately surrounding the house) was protected from search without a warrant, and the automobile exception did not apply. The automobile exception allows police to search a vehicle without a warrant because vehicles can easily be driven away and hidden or destroyed in the time it would take to get a warrant.
In the opinion, the Supreme Court found in favor of the defendant. It declined to extend the automobile exception to curtilage of a house, and it found that the driveway in question was curtilage. The Court noted that the automobile exception exists because vehicles can be driven away easily and because they are regulated due to their ability to travel on public roads. The exception does not permit police to enter a home’s curtilage for a search, regardless of whether there is a vehicle on the curtilage. Further, the Court emphasized the privacy interest that the defendant had in his home.
The state of Virginia also argued that police could permissibly enter only some parts of the curtilage to search a vehicle, not the house or other structures. The Supreme Court rejected this argument as well, noting that it would be unfair to favor people who had garages over others. In other words, if police could search vehicles they saw out on the driveway, but not those enclosed in garages out of sight, some people would get more protection for curtilage areas than others.
Unfortunately, the defendant Ryan Collins has not escaped criminal liability due to the Supreme Court ruling. The Court sent the case back to the state court to evaluate whether other exceptions to the warrant requirement could have applied.
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