Larry E. Holtz, Esq.
Driveway Car Searches Unlawful Without a Warrant
Does the automobile exception permit a law enforcement officer – uninvited and without a warrant – to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked at the top of the home’s driveway?
Recently, in Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. ___ (2018), the United States Supreme Court said, “No!” “The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage.”
During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving violations committed by an operator of an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame, Officer David Rhodes learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of defendant Ryan Collins. While investigating, Officer Rhodes discovered photographs on Collins’ Facebook page of an orange and black motorcycle parked at the top of a driveway of a house. The officer tracked down the address of the house, drove there and parked on the street. “It was later established that Collins’ girlfriend lived in the house and that Collins stayed there a few nights per week.”
“From his parked position on the street, Officer Rhodes saw what appeared to be a motorcycle with an extended frame covered with a white tarp, parked at the same angle and in the same location on the driveway as in the Facebook photograph.” The officer took a photograph of the covered motorcycle from the sidewalk and then walked onto the residential property and up to the top of the driveway to where the motorcycle was parked.
“Officer Rhodes pulled off the tarp, revealing a motorcycle which looked like the one from the speeding incident. He then ran a search of the license plate and vehicle identification numbers which confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen. After gathering this information, Officer Rhodes took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, put the tarp back on, left the property, and returned to his car to wait for Collins.” When Collins returned home and admitted that the motorcycle was his, the officer arrested him.
Finding the search unlawful, the United States Supreme Court preliminarily observed that this case sits at the intersection of two components of Fourth Amendment law: “the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and the protection extended to the curtilage of a home.”
Generally, “officers may search an automobile without having obtained a warrant so long as they have probable cause to do so.” On the other hand, “the Fourth Amendment’s protection of curtilage has long been black letter law.” Courts consider “curtilage – the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home – to be part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.” In this regard, it has long been established that “[t]he protection afforded the curtilage is essentially a protection of families and personal privacy in an area intimately linked to the home, both physically and psychologically, where privacy expectations are most heightened.”
“When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred” and such conduct “is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.”
In this case, the Court initially decided that the part of the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked and subsequently searched was “curtilage.” Photographs in the record revealed that the top portion of the driveway sits behind the front perimeter of the house; it “is enclosed on two sides by a brick wall about the height of a car and on a third side by the house. A side door provides direct access between this partially enclosed section of the driveway and the house. . . . When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside this partially enclosed top portion of the driveway which abuts the house.”
“Just like the front porch, side garden, or area outside the front window, the driveway enclosure where Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle constitutes an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends, and so is properly considered curtilage.”
“In physically intruding on the curtilage of Collins’ home to search the motorcycle, Officer Rhodes not only invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the item searched, i.e., the motorcycle, but also invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage of his home.” And, the automobile exception cannot be used to justify the invasion of the curtilage.
“Imagine a motorcycle parked inside the living room of a house, visible through a window to a passerby on the street. Imagine further that an officer has probable cause to believe that the motorcycle was involved in a traffic infraction. Can the officer, acting without a warrant, enter the house to search the motorcycle and confirm whether it is the right one? Surely not. The reason is that the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.”
“Just as an officer must have a lawful right of access to any contraband he discovers in plain view in order to seize it without a warrant, and just as an officer must have a lawful right of access in order to arrest a person in his home, so, too, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage.”
“The ability to observe inside curtilage from a lawful vantage point is not the same as the right to enter curtilage without a warrant for the purpose of conducting a search to obtain information not otherwise accessible[.] So long as it is curtilage, a parking patio or carport into which an officer can see from the street is no less entitled to protection from trespass and a warrantless search than a fully enclosed garage.”
Accordingly, the Court concluded that “the automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.”
Larry E. Holtz has served as a Detective Sergeant with the Atlantic City, New Jersey, Police Department; a Deputy Attorney General for the state of New Jersey, and an Assistant County Prosecutor. Presently, Mr. Holtz is the Managing Editor of Blue360° Media, the largest US provider of legal information which is solely focused on serving law enforcement. Mr. Holtz is a certified police trainer and teaches on a regular basis. He is a member of the bar in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia and is admitted to practice before the federal bar in the District of New Jersey and the Third Circuit.