U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

Tarp Protects Vehicle From Fourth Amendment Exemption

In the latest ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, an 8 to 1 majority opinion held that the Fourth Amendment's vehicle exemption did not apply to a motorcycle, stored under a tarp, on the curtilage of an individual's home.

The basic facts are reminiscent of a deceivingly complex bar exam question. An officer suspected an individual was in possession of a stolen motorcycle that was involved in a couple serious traffic incidents. The officer did some Facebook snooping, and found Ryan Collins who had posted photos of the same motorcycle parked in his driveway.

The officer went to Collins' home and saw a tarp at the top of the driveway next to the home. He then walked up the driveway to the tarp, lifted the tarp up, identified the motorcycle was in fact the one he was looking for, replaced the tarp, then went back to his car to wait for Collins to arrive home. When he did, Collins admitted to buying the bike without title, and the officer arrested him.

Get a Warrant

While the officer may have a good case for establishing probable cause, the real problem, seemingly based on the High Court's decision, is that he failed to get a warrant. The Court explained that a home's curtilage is afforded strong Fourth Amendment protections, and that law enforcement may not enter curtilage for the purpose of a search without a warrant, absent exigent circumstances. As the facts indicate, exigent circumstances were not present, and there was seemingly enough evidence available from Facebook and the sidewalk to support a warrant to search the curtilage.

However, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment applied. The problem that SCOTUS found with this was that in order for the officer to get to the automobile, or motorcycle in this case, the officer had to enter onto the property. Basically, for the exception to apply, another Constitutional violation had to be allowed.

Remanded

While SCOTUS may have reversed the prior judgments denying the motion to suppress, it remanded the matter for the state court to consider whether the officer's warrantless search of the curtilage can fit into another exception (such as exigent circumstances). Despite winning at the High Court, Collins may still need to catch a few more breaks before it's all over.

Justice Alito had his own interpretation as the lone dissenter. In the dissent, he went as far as to quote Dickens so as to not-so-subtly call the majority opinion stupid.

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