Automobile Exception Inapplicable to Automobile Parked at Home or Curtilage

On May 29, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against a warrantless police search of a motorcycle that was parked under a partially covered portion of the driveway. The case was Collins v. Virginia, and the decision is a major victory for advocates of the Fourth Amendment.

Law enforcement officers were investigating traffic offenses involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame. Upon viewing a Facebook post, an officer discovered the location of the motorcycle and learned that it may be stolen. Upon arriving at the residence, the officer could see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a tarp parked under a partially enclosed portion of the driveway that abutted the house. Without a warrant, the officer walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp, ran the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, and took photographs.

The Supreme Court held that the automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein. One of the exceptions to the warrant requirement is the automobile exception, which allows the government to search an automobile if they have probable cause. This is based upon the "ready mobility" of automobiles.

Also at play in this case is the Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the curtilage. The curtilage is the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home. It includes the front porch, side garden, and area outside the front window. The curtilage is afforded the same protection as the home for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The Court found the automobile exception inapplicable in this case because expanding the scope of the automobile exception to permit warrantless entries into the home would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and 'untether' the automobile exception from the justifications underlying it.