Argued January 9, 2018—Decided May 29 2018, During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame, Officer David Rhodes learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of petitioner Ryan Collins. Officer Rhodes discovered photographs on Collins’ Facebook profile of an orange and black motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house, drove to the house, and parked on the street. From there, he could see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a white tarp parked in the same location as the motorcycle in the photograph. Without a search warrant, Office Rhodes walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp, confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen by running the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, replaced the tarp, and returned to his car to wait for Collins. When Collins returned, Officer Rhodes arrested him. The trial court denied Collins’ motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that Officer Rhodes violated the Fourth Amendment when he trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct a search, and Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property. The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed. The State Supreme Court also affirmed, holding that the warrantless search was justified under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception.
Today in an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court ruled police officers need a warrant to search vehicles parked at home or on the surrounding property. Today’s decision reversed an earlier Virginia Court ruling that allowed warrantless searches to take place on vehicles.
The case centered around Ryan Collins who had left a stolen motorcycle under a tarp at his girlfriend’s house. When police looked under the tarp they found the motorcycle and ran the plates confirming their suspicions.
For the Police to make this confirmation they had to walk onto private property, lift a tarp and inspect the vehicle. Justice Sotomayor called this a “physical intrusion” and that this type of conduct is “unreasonable absent a warrant and that Collins is protected by the 4th Amendment.
Justice Alito was the one dissenting vote and left the court with a bold statement when he quoted Oliver Twist – “So why does the Court come to the conclusion that Officer Rhodes needed a warrant in this case? Because, in order to reach the motorcycle, he had to walk 30 feet or so up the driveway of the house rented by petitioner’s girlfriend, and by doing that, Rhodes invaded the home’s “curtilage.” Ante, at 6–7. The Court does not dispute that the motorcycle, when parked in the driveway, was just as mobile as it would have been had it been parked at the curb. Nor does the Court claim that Officer Rhodes’s short walk up the driveway did petitioner or his girlfriend any harm. Rhodes did not damage any property or observe anything along the way that he could not have seen from the street. But, the Court insists, Rhodes could not enter the driveway without a warrant, and therefore his search of the motorcycle was unreasonable and the evidence obtained in that search must be suppressed. An ordinary person of common sense would react to the Court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life. If that is the law, he exclaimed, “the law is a ass—a idiot.” C. Dickens, Oliver Twist 277 (1867).”
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