The Supreme Court has long ruled that homes and their associated premises deserve special protection from overzealous law enforcement searches. While police are generally required by the Fourth Amendment to get warrants before conducting searches, there are a wide variety of exceptions to that rule. When it comes to the home and what the courts call the home's "curtilage," however, courts scrutinize those exceptions carefully.
The U.S. Supreme Court has just rejected a Virginia police department's attempt to use one common exception when it comes to a home and its curtilage. Since 1925, courts have allowed a so-called "automobile exception" to the warrant requirement. When, an officer notices evidence of a crime in a car or other motor vehicle, the officer can perform an immediate search in order to prevent that evidence from disappearing.
What if the vehicle in question is parked in the driveway of a private home? The driveway is part of a home's curtilage. Would the automobile exception allow police to search the vehicle if they believe they had seen evidence of a crime? The Supreme Court said no.
In this case, the Albemarle County Police Department had been trying to track down the owner of a black and orange motorcycle who had eluded police on two occasions. They believed they had identified the owner through a Facebook post, where the defendant was pictured with a similar motorcycle.
Acting on a hunch, one officer visited the defendant's property and noticed what seemed to be a motorcycle in the driveway, covered by a tarp. He entered the property, lifted the tarp, and discovered a motorcycle like the one the department had been seeking. He also discovered that the bike had been stolen some years back. The defendant was charged and ultimately convicted of receiving stolen property.
"The question before the court," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for an 8-1 majority, "is whether the automobile exception justifies the invasion of the curtilage. The answer is no."
To allow police to enter a person's property whenever there was a motor vehicle to be searched would hollow out the Fourth Amendment's protection against warrantless searches of the home. Furthermore, applying the automobile exception in this way would transform it from what was meant to be a limited exception into a broad and permissive doctrine.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, reasoning that the search had been reasonable and pointing out that the search would certainly have been constitutional if the motorcycle had been parked at the curb.
The ruling makes clear that courts should expect to see a warrant whenever police enter a person's home and curtilage unless they can point to a specific, expressly granted exception.