The case is Collins v. Virginia, issued on May 29. After an officer saw a motorcycle commit traffic infractions in the course of a few weeks, the officers discovered the bike was stolen and figured out where it was being parked. Without a warrant, the officers entered the property to inspect the motorcycle and take a picture. Question: was this legal? No, it was not, says the Court, in an 8-1 decision written by Justice Sotomayor.
As usual, we have competing principles at stake. There's the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, which upholds warrantless searches of vehicles on the road because there is no time to get a warrant and the vehicle is in motion and can disappear quickly. We also have the curtilage rule, which "has long been black letter law," the Court says, stemming from the core constitutional "right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion." The curtilage is "the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home -- to be part of the home for Fourth Amendment purposes," where the expectation of privacy is at its zenith.
So what'll it be? The automobile exception or the curtilage rule? The Court goes with the curtilage rule in this case. Justice Sotomayor starts with a hypothetical:
Applying the relevant legal principles to a slightly different factual scenario confirms that this is an easy case. 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 Court goes on to say that "the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself." While Virginia wants the Court to extend that exception "to permit the police to invade any space outside an automobile even if the Fourth Amendment protects that space," that argument would undermine the curtilage rule. "Nothing in our case law, however,suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant. Expanding the scope of the automobile exception in this way 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."
Justice Thomas concurs in the opinion, but only because it applies settled Supreme Court authority. If it were up to him, state courts should not have to apply the exclusionary rule that has been a bedrock principle of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence for decades. The exclusionary rule says that if the police conduct an unconstitutional search, they cannot use the fruits of that search against the defendant. The rationale for this rule is that it deters police misconduct. But Justice Thomas says the exclusionary rule did not exist when the Constitution was drafted, and it does not explicitly appear in the Constitution. The rule should not apply to the states, he says.