Published on: Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In Collins v. Virginia, No. 16-1027, the United States Supreme Court, in a 8 to 1 oinion delivered by Justice Sotomayor, held that "the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle," reversing the Supreme Court of Virginia.  


In this case, police investigated two traffic accidents that involved a black and orange motorcycle that was likely stolen and in the possession of Ryan Collins. After seeing photographs of a black and orange motorcycle on Collins's facebook page, the police went to his house where they saw from the street what appeared to be a black and orange motorcycle under a white tarp parked in the curtilage of the house. Without a warrant, the police entered the curtilage, removed the tarp, confirmed the motorcycle was stolen, replaced the tarp, waited for Collins to come home and arrested him. A Virginia trial court denied Collins's motion to suppress and he was convicted of receiving stolen property.  The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed Collins's conviction holding that the warrantless search was justified under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.


Reversing, the Supreme Court determined the part of the driveway where the motorcycle was parked, i.e., inside a partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house, was part of the "curtilage" of the house.  Reasoning the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, the Court concluded the officer's invasion of the curtilage was not justified by the automobile exception.


Justice Thomas concurred separately, acknowledging that the Court's opinion "correctly resolves the Fourth Amendment question in this case," but questioning the authority of the Court's authority to apply the exclusionary rule on the States.  In Thomas's view, "[t]he assumption that the state courts must apply the federal exclusionary rule is legally dubious," and the Court should revisit that question.  Justice Alito dissented, arguing that the search of the motorcycle in the curtilage was "entirely reasonable," emphasizing that the motorcycle was no less mobile because of its location in the curtilage.


The merits briefing in Collins is available at the Surpreme Court's website here. The Training Division provides resouces on search and seizure generally, search and seizure automobile searches, and search and seizure involving wiretaps and electronic surveillance