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Collins v. Virginia

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Collins v. Virginia is an undecided Supreme Court case heard in the January term. It involves Fourth Amendment protections within what both sides call the ‘curtilage’ – including areas of private property like driveways, parking patios, and open fields. Relevant to this case are two primary doctrines: the protection of the home and the automobile exception. A longstanding protection granted by the Fourth Amendment recognizes that the home – at least within the four walls – is more or less sacrosanct and carries many more protections than the outside. The automobile exception recognizes that if a warrant had to be issued to search an automobile, the ready locomotion it provides could quickly remove it from a jurisdiction. Therefore, the standards – at least on open road – for search are lessened and can be carried out with probable cause.

According to Oyez, the facts of the case are:

On two occasions, a particular unique-looking motorcycle evaded Albemarle police officers after they observed the rider violating traffic laws. After some investigation, one of the officers located the house where the suspected driver of the motorcycle lived and observed what appeared to be the same motorcycle covered by a tarp in the driveway. The officer lifted the tarp and confirmed that it was the motorcycle (which was also stolen) that had eluded detainment on multiple occasions. The officer waited for the suspect to return home, at which point he went to the front door to inquire about the motorcycle. Initially the suspect denied knowing anything about it but eventually confessed that he had bought the motorcycle knowing that it had been stolen. The officer arrested the suspect for receipt of stolen property.

At trial, the defendant sought to suppress the motorcycle as evidence on the grounds that the police officer conducted an illegal warrantless search (by lifting the tarp covering the motorcycle parked in the driveway) that led to its discovery. The trial court held that the search was based on probable cause and justified under the exigent circumstances automobile exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement and convicted the defendant. The appeals court affirmed on the grounds of exigent circumstances, and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed as well, but under the automobile exception only. The Virginia Supreme Court reasoned that the automobile exception applies even when the vehicle is not “immediately mobile” and applies to vehicles parked on private property.


The motorcycle in question – Richmond Times Dispatch

The question posed to the Court is:

Whether the Fourth Amendment allows a warrantless daytime inspection of a motorcycle’s vehicle identification number and license plate, when the motorcycle is parked in a private driveway, clearly identifiable under a tarp, adjacent to the steps leading to the front door of the house, and when the officer has probable cause to believe that the motorcycle is evidence of multiple crimes and twice has been used to elude police.

Both sides agree on many parts of the case. In its brief, Collins conceded that the officer in the case, Officer Rhodes, had probable cause and could be sure that the motorcycle was Collins’. Virginia concedes that Rhodes did search the vehicle. The key sticking point was whether Rhodes needed a warrant to search the vehicle, or whether it would qualify under the automobile exception. Both do not dispute the sacrosanctity of the home within its four walls, and do not debate it.


In its brief, Collins presented many arguments.

  1. The automobile exception was created for traffic stops and interactions on public roads. The cases that Virginia cites all happened in those instances, and have nothing to do with the home and curtilage
  2. By Oliver v. US (1984), the curtilage extends to the home. Furthermore, these areas enjoy protection, by Florida v. Jardines (2013)
  3. Virginia takes positions rejected by the majority, especially in its argument about Coolidge v. New Hampshire (1971).
  4. Ready mobility does not excuse the warrant requirement within the home and curtilage. Drugs, it cites, are readily movable, but must have a warrant. Furthermore, ready mobility peaks only at interactions like traffic stops. If a warrant or case specific exigency is required for the drugs, it should be for vehicles as well.
  5. Many Fourth Amendment effects travel into the public and have less protection in that setting. But, when they return to the house, they get more protection. There is no good reason to treat a vehicle differently.
  6. Quoted from the brief, “And the Commonwealth does not deny that if the parking patio is not curtilage, then it is open field—which would mean an officer could linger there with no warrant and no probable cause, peering with “super high-powered binoculars” through the side door into the recesses of the home.”
  7. Rhodes had no license to remove the tarp, as conceded by Virginia in its brief, “no one is arguing that a visitor—be it a Girl Scout, a trick-or treater, or a police officer—is “impliedly invited,” to remove the cover off a vehicle parked in a private driveway and to inspect its license-plate and VIN information.”
  8. According to Jardines, implied license only allows approach by front path.
  9. Collins had reasonable expectation of privacy – motorcycle was under tarp and in protected curtilage.

Some of these arguments should be rejected, namely the first, third and seventh. While the automobile exception was created by traffic stops, that does not necessarily mean that the curtilage is protected – the principle and rationale can be applied. Of the third, the usage of nonbinding opinions does not credit or discredit a case. While many courts choose to follow precedents, the revision of a doctrine is not necessarily a negative thing. And the seventh, for Virginia does not concede Rhodes’ absence of license. Rather, the statement states that a regular person has no license to do what Rhodes did. However, police act in other functions outside of being citizens. Therefore, the statement has no relevance to the case.

Virginia, in its brief presents counterarguments, as well as some of its own.

  1. Collins cannot dispute that Rhodes never knew if or when the motorcycle might disappear, as it was used recently in high-speed chases, and because Collins was notified.
  2. The Court has never limited application of the automobile exception to particular locations.
  3. Jardines is a case of asking if something is a search, and Virginia concedes that Rhodes searched
  4. By US v. Ross (1982), only the judge’s approval is waived in probable cause searches. Probable cause searches allow for searches the same as a warrant. Therefore, Collins’ argument of trespass is invalid, as officers do not need to secure a warrant to do so. Furthermore, the scope of Rhodes’ search is limited, well within what a warrant would allow.
  5. The idea that curtilage changes the principles of the automobile exception are ludicrous. Getting a warrant for the motorcycle, regardless of its placement, would be risky.
  6. Collins’ contention the automobile exception can only be used if there is no time for a warrant is ludicrous. Husty v. US (1931) said that officers cannot know when automobiles might be moved.
  7. Contrary to Collins’ contention, the automobile exception provides the same as a warrant, not broader.
  8. Scher v. US (1938) said that it was all right if a police tailed a car into the garage.
  9. Collins’ use of Coolidge is incorrect – in the case, there culprit was in custody, so the car was not readily movable. Furthermore, there was no contraband in the car. In California v. Carney (1985), it held that motor homes with ready locomotion are different from those without. The motorcycle falls in the same group as the former, even though it was unmoving, because it could be readily moved, causing the need for immediate intervention
  10. Police may enter common-use areas, such as driveways, so there is no difference between a street and driveway search.
  11. Curtilage exception undermines purpose of automobile exception.

The second argument should be disregarded. Similar to the rationale of Collins’ brief, the absence of precedents does not denote the unimportance of the issue.

The argument that Collins makes about the sacrosanctity of the curtilage is quite ludicrous. Many differences can be seen between a house and a driveway, one of which is implied license to enter. While Virginia’s argument about the driveway being a common-use area is also incorrect, it does point out that people do have license to go up to a driveway, something people cannot do to a home. The curtilage exists in a middle ground. It enjoys some protection, but not as much as the home. As conceded by Virginia, the layman cannot do what Rhodes did. The distinction is of public view. Curtilage, in general, can be seen from the street, while the home’s interior cannot.

Warrant requirements have become increasingly constricted to the home. Therefore, the curtilage should fall under probable cause, not warrant requirement. Officer Rhodes acted well within whatever probable cause standard imposed. His probable cause was formed prior to stepping foot onto private land, allowing him more protection to search on the curtilage. Therefore, the Fourth Amendment protects this search.



Briefs for petitioner, respondent, and transcript of case.

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