Privacy rights are at the heart of a free society. The Fourth Amendment provides valuable protection against unreasonable government intrusion. Police can’t break down your door for no reason. They can’t search your belongings without justification. They can’t arrest you on a whim.
There are many gray areas when it comes to determining the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s protections. And there are several exceptions to the general requirement that police secure a warrant before searching your person or property.
One of those exceptions – the “automobile exception” – frequently comes up in cases involving contraband such as drugs or stolen property. The story often goes like this: You get pulled over for driving with a busted taillight (or some other minor traffic infraction). While questioning you about the light, the police officer notices that your car reeks of marijuana. He observes, based on drug detection training, that you appear stoned. He also sees a smoking bong on the floor, in plain view. Based on these facts, the officer has probable cause to search at least the main compartment of your vehicle for drugs, if not the trunk as well.
But consider an entirely different situation: Police have reason to believe you possess a stolen motorcycle. They know where it’s parked – at your girlfriend’s house. Instead of getting a warrant, however, they snoop around the house. They can see what looks to be a motorcycle under a tarp in the driveway. Though not in a garage, the tarp-covered vehicle is parked in a three-sided, brick-walled enclosure that abuts the house. Still without a warrant, the police officers walk up the driveway into the enclosure, remove the tarp and run the motorcycle’s plates, confirming that it’s stolen. Does the automobile exception apply?
The Supreme Court considered this very scenario in a recent case, Collins v. Virginia. The state argued that because the search involved a vehicle, and because they had probable cause to believe it was stolen property, they didn’t need a warrant under the automobile exception. Thankfully, the Supreme Court disagreed.
The automobile exception applies to the confines of the vehicle itself. It’s based on the justification that vehicles are both highly regulated and highly mobile, resulting in reduced privacy expectations. The home, by contrast, is where expectations of privacy are highest. And those privacy expectations apply to the areas surrounding the home – called the “curtilage” – which includes the partially-enclosed structure that housed the motorcycle in this case.
While perhaps not a groundbreaking ruling, the opinion upholds the importance of privacy rights in the home and surrounding areas. It prevents further erosion of Fourth Amendment protections by recognizing that the mere presence of a vehicle on private property doesn’t justify a warrantless search.