By David G. Savage
The Supreme Court on Tuesday extended the Constitution's privacy protection to include vehicles that are parked on a home's driveway or carport, ruling that police need a search warrant before they may inspect them.
In general, police may look closely at cars that are parked along public roads, without the need for a search warrant.
But in Tuesday's 8-1 ruling, the justices said a vehicle parked in a carport or on private property adjacent to a home deserves the privacy protection of the 4th Amendment.
"When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes" on private property and walks up to a house to look for evidence, "a search within the meaning of the 4th Amendment has occurred," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in Collins vs. Virginia. "Such conduct thus is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant."
Tuesday's ruling closely tracks a decision in 2013 when the court ruled that police may not bring a drug-sniffing dog to the front porch of a home without a search warrant. In both instances, the justices said the 4th Amendment gives its greatest protection for homes and the private property surrounding them.
The court ruled in favor of Ryan Collins, a Virginia man who was convicted of stealing a motorcycle. Two officers in Albemarle County were in search of a distinctive orange-and-black-colored cycle they had seen speeding. After doing some research on Facebook, they saw Collins had posted a photograph of the cycle.
One officer stopped at the house where Collins was living and saw from the street what looked to be a motorcycle under a tarp. It was next to the house. The officer walked up the driveway, lifted the tarp and took several photos of the cycle. Collins was arrested and convicted.
The Virginia courts rejected his claim that the search was unconstitutional, citing the automobile exception to the 4th Amendment. In defending the conviction, the state's lawyers agreed an officer may not enter a closed garage, but they argued there was no such bar on checking a vehicle in plain sight on the property.
The Supreme Court disagreed with both the state's courts, and the state's fallback legal position about plain sight.
"We conclude 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," Sotomayor said.
Matthew A. Fitzgerald, a Richmond lawyer who appealed the case to the Supreme Court, said the ruling makes an important clarification in the law. "It is now clear that a person who parks his vehicle on a private driveway near his home has placed it within the 4th Amendment protection of the home," he said.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, saying the search was reasonable because "the vehicle was parked in plain view in a driveway just a few feet from the street."
In a separate opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas took the most far-reaching view. He concurred with the outcome based on precedent, but said the court should overturn the "exclusionary rule," which since 1961 has blocked the use of illegally obtained evidence in state courts. "I have serious doubts about this court's authority to impose that rule on the states," he said.
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