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In search of a motorcycle on private property, curtilage matters, U.S. Supreme Court says last week.

Photograph: Motorcycle parked in an enclosed porch.

Curtilage.  Sounds like something that describes yogurt gone bad.  Or something your doctor scrapes off an infected wound. 

Nothing having to do with motorcycles would ever come to mind when using the word “curtilage.”

Until now.  Because a new U.S. Supreme Court decision, Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. ___ (2018), was just handed down last week that held the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its surrounding area -- the curtilage -- in order to search a vehicle therein.  In this case, the vehicle was an “orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame” stored under a tarp in the driveway next to the house of defendant Collins.  The motorcycle was used as evidence to convict Collins of possession of stolen property.  He appealed that conviction on the grounds that the police officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching his driveway on private property without a search warrant. 

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one of the most powerful protections against government intrusions into the privacy of Americans, reads quite simply as follows:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Relatively simple to state, wicked hard to effectuate and apply in practice.  That’s why criminal lawyers spend their entire careers reading it, applying it, arguing it, and winning or losing based upon it on behalf of their clients.

Put simply, vehicles -- cars and motorcycles -- are subject to Fourth Amendment protections, but because they move around, can be looked at out in the open on public streets by all to see, have windows everyone can look into (cars and trucks there, admit it, you’ve done it), they are subject to a lessened or lower standard of Fourth Amendment protection.  This is called the “automobile exception,” which is a complicated subdivision of Fourth Amendment rules just applicable to cars, motorcycles, trucks, etc.

Houses, however, don’t move around.  They are often set back from the road or a driveway.  They are not easily looked-into.  Houses have front doors and windows that lock, with shades to keep out prying eyes.  Houses have rock-solid Fourth Amendment protections.  And usually there are garages, driveways, front and back lawns, etc., that are part of the house premises.  These outside areas are called “curtilage” -- a legal term that applies to property immediately surrounding a dwelling, and has nothing to do with bad yogurt -- and these areas are also subject to Fourth Amendment protections, requiring a warrant to be obtained from a judge by police upon proof of probable cause sufficient to justify entering the private property and conducting a search.

So here’s the tough question posed in the Collins v. Virginia case:  can a police officer walk up and on to a private driveway next to a house and lift up a tarp covering a motorcycle parked in the driveway, which motorcycle the officer believes to be stolen and was used to escape a 140 m.p.h. police chase?

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a resounding 8 to 1 decision, said no.  While the motorcycle was a vehicle subject to the automobile exception (lowered Fourth Amendment protections), the fact that it was parked in the driveway of a private house, covered by a tarp, placed it within the curtilage of the private property, which curtilage area is subject to full Fourth Amendment warrant protections.  The curtilage protection regarding privacy in and around the area of the home in which the “activity of home life extends” is stronger than the automobile exception that allows police to look at and into a vehicle.  In other words, the police officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct a search of the motorcycle without a warrant. 

As such, the automobile exception is not a categorical one that permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime, anywhere, including in a home or curtilage -- so police cannot simply walk up a driveway or enter a backyard, or peer into a garage on private property just because a car, truck or motorcycle is there to be looked at. 

As a result of Collins v. Virginia, it is now clear that the police have to get a warrant to enter the curtilage premises first, before they can look at or search a vehicle located on private property, just as it should be under the Fourth Amendment.  Well done, Justice Sotomayor and the other seven Justices who agreed with her.

James Snyder