A motorist on an orange and black motorcycle had eluded Virginia police officers twice. One officer found a picture that matched the motorcycle on Facebook and, through research, found the house where the motorcycle was located and that the motorcycle may have been stolen. The officer pulled up to the house, saw what appeared to be a motorcycle covered by a white tarp parked in the driveway in the carport. The officer walked up the driveway, removed the tarp, ran the plate number and the VIN, which confirmed the vehicle was stolen, replaced the tarp, left the property, and waited in his car for the driver.
The driver returned to the house, where he stayed a couple nights a week. The officer walked up to the front door and knocked. The driver answered and agreed to speak with the officer. The driver stated that the motorcycle was his and that he bought it without title. The officer arrested the driver.
The driver filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle. The driver claimed the officer trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct the investigation in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The state trial court, Court of Appeals of Virginia, and Supreme Court of Virginia all held that the warrantless search was reasonable. The Virginia appellate court held the search reasonable based on probable cause and exigent circumstances. The Virginia Supreme Court applied different reasoning, the automobile exception, and found that the officer had probable cause to believe that the motorcycle was contraband and a warrantless search was justified.
The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Collins v. Virginia, No. 16-1027, 584 U.S. _ (2018). The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that this case arose at the intersection of two components of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: the automobile exception and the protection afforded the curtilage of the home.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by explaining the logic behind the automobile exception. Warrantless searches of a vehicle are sometimes justified for two reasons: (1) vehicles by nature are mobile and may be moved out of the jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought and (2) the sheer amount of government regulation of vehicles.
Next, the Court explained what the “curtilage” is. Fourth Amendment jurisprudence defines the curtilage as the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home, like a front porch, side garden, or area right outside a window. The curtilage is considered to be a part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.
The court examined the facts specific to this case in determining whether the motorcycle was in the curtilage of the home. The motorcycle was parked in a partially enclosed car port abutting the house. A side door led directly from the house to the car port. A visitor looking to access the front door of the house would have to use the driveway, but not go as far as the car port. All factors combined led the Court to hold that the car port where the motorcycle was parked was within the curtilage of the home.
This conclusion meant that the officer invaded the curtilage to conduct his warrantless search. The Court compared this to an officer viewing the motorcycle inside the living room of a house. In that case, the officer must obtain a warrant to enter the house to conduct a search. Since the house and its curtilage are the same, the officer must also get a warrant to enter the curtilage. No Supreme Court case law suggests that the automobile exception allows an officer to enter a house or curtilage to gain access to a vehicle without a warrant; the automobile exception applies to vehicles only.
But, the officer could see what he thought could be the motorcycle in question from the street. Wouldn’t the plain view doctrine apply? Remember that the motorcycle was concealed by a white tarp, which the officer removed to read the VIN and license plate number, and only then could he confirm that the motorcycle looked similar to the one used to elude officers. This fact nullifies the plain view exception as the information that the officer relied on to determine the motorcycle was stolen was not in plain view. The officer trespassed to get that information and, therefore, violated the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights. An officer must have the lawful right to access the vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception.