The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The operative word in that phrase, however, is “unreasonable.” Over the last 240 years, courts at every level have attempted to define what constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure in a variety of situations. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court was presented with two conflicting interpretations of the Fourth Amendment—one as it applies to a person’s home and the other as it applies to a person’s vehicle.
Collins v. Virginia
The case originated in Albemarle County, Virginia in June 2013 where a rider on a distinctive orange and black motorcycle fled and eluded police at high rates of speed twice in the period of several weeks. The police used found the person they believed to be in possession of the motorcycle and that the motorcycle was likely to have been stolen. Using social media, the police were able to link the suspected owner/rider to an orange and black motorcycle. Social media also allowed police to find an address for the suspect.
A local officer went to the address and parked on the street. Court records indicate that the officer saw a motorcycle on the property, covered by a tarp. Based on an exposed wheel, the officer reportedly recognized it as the same type of motorcycle from the fleeing and eluding situations. The officer walked up the driveway, removed the tarp, found the VIN of the motorcycle, and determined that it was the motorcycle that police had been seeking. The police arrested the suspect at the home and upon searching the suspect’s pockets, police found a key to the motorcycle. The suspect was indicted and convicted on charges of possessing stolen property.
At trial and on appeal, the suspect maintained that the police did not have probable cause to come onto his property and conduct a warrantless search of the premises or the motorcycle. The Commonwealth of Virginia claimed that the property in question was a vehicle, so the lower standard for a warrantless search of a vehicle applied, not the more stringent standard for searching a home and its surroundings—also known as “curtilage.”
By an 8-1 margin, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the so-called “automobile exception” did not apply in this case. “We conclude 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 therein,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, and only Justice Samuel Alito dissented.
Facing Criminal Charges Related to a Questionable Search?
If you have been arrested and charged with a crime as the result of a search that you believe was unreasonable, contact an experienced Connecticut criminal defense attorney. We will work with you in exploring your available options and help you protect your rights at every stage of the proceedings. Call 860-290-8690 for a free consultation.