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SCOTUS: Warrantless Invasion of Curtilage to Conduct Search Unconstitutional

by Richard Resch

In a May 29, 2018 opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit law enforcement to enter the curtilage of a home, without a warrant or consent, in order to search a vehicle located therein.

On two occasions, a person riding an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame eluded police officers who attempted to conduct a traffic stop. Investigators observed a motorcycle matching that description on the Facebook page of Ryan Collins. Officer David Rhodes believed that the motorcycle was stolen and located at the top of the driveway of his girlfriend’s house.

Rhodes drove to the house, parked on the street, and observed what appeared to be the motorcycle in question covered with a white tarp. Without a search warrant, Rhodes walked onto the property and removed the tarp. He then performed a search of the license plate and VIN numbers, which confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen. He then got back into his patrol vehicle and waited for Collins to return.

Upon his return, Collins admitted the motorcycle was his and that he purchased it without title. Rhodes then placed him under arrest, and he was subsequently charged with receiving stolen property. Collins filed a pretrial motion to suppress, arguing that Rhodes had obtained the evidence against him via a warrantless search of the motorcycle. He further argued that Rhodes trespassed on the curtilage of the house for investigatory purposes in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The trial court denied his motion, and Collins was convicted. The Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed as did the Virginia Supreme Court. It analyzed the case within the framework of the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment and held that Rhodes had probable cause to believe the motorcycle was evidence of a crime. Thus, the warrantless search was justified. SCOTUS granted certiorari.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the case implicates two components of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: (1) the automobile exception and (2) the protection afforded to the curtilage of a home. The automobile exception provides that a warrantless search of a vehicle can be reasonable. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). Through subsequent cases, SCOTUS articulated two justifications for the exception. First, the “ready mobility” of vehicles serves as the core rationale. California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985). Second, “the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways” serves as an additional rationale. Id. SCOTUS made it clear that the rationale for the automobile exception applies only to vehicles, not houses, so vehicles are treated differently than houses as a constitutional matter. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973).

For Fourth Amendment purposes, curtilage is the area “immediately surrounding and associated with the home” and is treated as “part of the home itself….” Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984). SCOTUS has explained that when police physically intrude upon the curtilage for investigatory purposes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred, and such conduct is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant. Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013).

The Court described the area where the motorcycle was parked as a “partially enclosed portion of the driveway that abuts the house.” It concluded that the motorcycle was located within the curtilage of the house. In searching the motorcycle itself as well as intruding upon the curtilage of the home, Rhodes invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interests in both, the Court stated.

The question before the Court was whether the automobile exception justifies the invasion of the curtilage, and the Court concluded it does not.

The Court explained that the automobile exception extends no further than the vehicle itself. Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938 (1996). Essentially, Virginia asked the Court to “expand the scope of the automobile exception to permit police to invade any space outside an automobile even if the Fourth Amendment protects that space.” The Court summarily rejected the invitation to do so and stated that nothing in its case law even suggests that such an expansion of the exception would be appropriate. In fact, such an expansion of the exception would essentially eviscerate the Fourth Amendment any time a vehicle is involved.    

Applying the foregoing legal principles to this case, the automobile exception did not afford Rhodes with the necessary “lawful right of access to search” the motorcycle parked within the curtilage of the home. That is, the automobile exception did not authorize Rhodes to invade the curtilage of the home to conduct a search of the motorcycle.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (2018). 

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Related legal case

Collins v. Virginia



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