The Supreme Court term is beginning to wind down, with about four weeks left to go, which means rulings will be coming out fast from now on. And we got a big win for the 4th Amendment, a rare 8-1 ruling on an issue that usually divides the court. The case involved a stolen motorcycle on private property that the police did not have a warrant to search.
At issue in the case was a very distinctive motorcycle (it was orange and black) that had been stolen. The police found it under a tarp in the driveway of a home, but they did not have a warrant to search the property so the defendant moved to suppress that evidence. The courts have long allowed something called the “automobile exception” that applies a lower standard for a search of a vehicle, but the court said that this exception did not apply when the vehicle is on private property because the 4th Amendment protections are at their strongest when it comes to a private home and the surrounding property. Amy Howe explains the court’s reasoning:
In a near-unanimous decision authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court began by making clear that the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked was part of the curtilage protected by the Fourth Amendment. The court then explained that the justification for the automobile exception doesn’t consider a resident’s privacy interest in his home and its curtilage at all; rather, the rationale rests on the twin ideas that cars can easily be moved and are subject to regulation simply by virtue of being on the roads. None of the Supreme Court’s cases, the court continued, indicates that the automobile exception allows a police officer to enter the home or its curtilage without a warrant to search a vehicle – if anything, the court has emphasized the need to treat “automobiles differently from houses.” “Given the centrality of the Fourth Amendment interest in the home and its curtilage and the disconnect between that interest and the justifications behind the automobile exception,” the court concluded, “we decline Virginia’s invitation to extend the automobile exception to permit a warrantless intrusion on a home or its curtilage.”
The ruling was 8-1. To no one’s surprise, the one vote in dissent was Justice Alito, who would rubber stamp pretty much anything any police officer does. I doubt he has ever written or joined a single ruling that limited the power of law enforcement to do virtually anything. When you’re to the right of Clarence Thomas when it comes to law enforcement powers, you’re in cloud cuckoo land.