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Supreme Court Rules 8-1 Against Warrantless Police Search in Important Fourth Amendment Case

SCOTUS rejects warrantless search of vehicle parked in the "curtilage" of private home.

Pete Souza / White HousePete Souza / White HouseFourth Amendment advocates scored a victory today when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against a warrantless police search that involved an officer entering private property for the purpose of examining a motorcycle stored under a tarp in the driveway near a home. "In physically intruding on the curtilage of [Ryan Austin] Collins' home to search the motorcycle," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority in Collins v. Virginia, the officer "not only invaded Collins' Fourth Amendment interest in the item searched, i.e., the motorcycle, but also invaded Collins' Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage of his home."

The central question before the Supreme Court in Collins v. Virginia was whether the so-called automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment, which allows the police certain latitude to search vehicles on public streets without a warrant, also allows the police to walk up a driveway without a warrant and search a vehicle parked in the area near a house. The Court ruled 8-1 that the automobile exception should not apply in this scenario.

"To allow an officer to rely on the automobile exception to gain entry to a house or its curtilage for the purpose of conducting a vehicle search would unmoor the exception from its justifications, render hollow the Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage, and transform what was meant to be an exception into a tool with far broader application," wrote Justice Sotomayor. "Indeed, its name alone should make all this clear enough: It is, after all, an exception for automobiles."

The sole dissent in the case was filed by Justice Samuel Alito, who insisted that the police had every right to engage in this sort of warrantless activity. "The Fourth Amendment prohibits 'unreasonable' searches," Justice Alito maintained. "What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable. The Court's decision is not."

This clash over the meaning of the Fourth Amendment should come as little surprise. Since joining the Supreme Court in 2009, Justice Sotomayor has distinguished herself as both a leading critic of police misconduct and an outspoken advocate of Fourth Amendment rights. Justice Alito, by contrast, has emerged as perhaps the Court's most dependable voice in support of law enforcement in such cases.

Today's decision will not be the last time that Sotomayor and Alito stand on opposite sides of a Fourth Amendment dispute.

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  • Tom Bombadil||

    "This clash over the meaning of the Fourth Amendment should come as little surprise. Since joining the Supreme Court in 2009, Justice Sotomayor has distinguished herself as both a leading critic of police misconduct and an outspoken advocate of Fourth Amendment rights. "

    Wise Latina or Wisest Latina?

  • John||

    She is the Pleasantly Surprising Latina.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    The predictable Latina. You can predict when she'll rule in favor of liberty, and when she'll rule against it.

    Just not based on reading the law...

  • Ship of Theseus||

    ^This is about right. She's properly against anti-liberty activities of the police, but when it comes to anti-liberty activities of the legislatures...

  • John||

    That is true. But the fact that she is pro liberty at all exceeds any expectations I had of her.

  • Agammamon||

    Be fair - they *all* will bend over backwards to find some way to accommodate the Legislature but not all of them fight against the police.

  • tlapp||

    Bingo!

  • BYODB||

    Of course, it's amusingly ironic that they would fight against the overreach of the agents the legislature put in place to do their will but not cross the primary actor that's authorizing the behavior. Of course, that said, police are (usually) at the city level so you can't necessarily lay the blame directly at the legislatures feet but rather the city councils.

  • kevrob||

    All local governments are "creatures of the state." They don't have any of even the limited sovereignty that the state governments share with the Feds, but are merely the agents of the state governments. They depend on their existence on state-issued charters, which can be revoked.

    Theoretically, the state governments can't be erased from existence by the Feds, shy of a constitutional amendment. In the case of actual rebellion, they have been replaced by martial law, and forced to be reorganized. {See unpleasantness of the 1860s.}

  • Benitacanova||

    She would likely rule against your facetious appropriation of the word latina.

  • What's the frequency, Kenneth?||

    Glad to see there's upside to the Wise Latina.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Actually, she's just the ONLY justice with ANY experience in criminal law. THREE FUCKING MONTHS as a prosecutor.

  • wnoise||

    More like five years: 1979-1984. See, e.g. this New York Times profile.

  • John||

    Alito is basically saying that there is no limit to search and seizure powers just so long as some judge somewhere thinks it is reasonable. To say that the police can enter a car parked in your driveway is to expand the Carol Doctrine from not requiring a warrant to search a car to make the existence of a car the same thing as plain view. Remember, curtilage is your home. The police violating your curtilage is the same as them entering your home. According to Alito, parking a car in your driveway is the same as leaving contraband in plain view of anyone who walks by.

    You really can't overstate how awful Alito's dissent is in this case.

  • Chipper Jones||

    This is one time the Left should be happy we didn't get Garland. Dude is basically Alito's twin on civil liberties, deferring to government at every opportunity.

  • John||

    Garland was going to be awful. All of the respect for civil liberties and protection for the accused of Alito but made up for it by having all of the respect for the First and Second Amendments of Kagan. He was like a Frankenstein Monster of horrible jurists.

  • Joe_JP||

    Garland would have voted like Breyer and this opinion was 8-1. It is not a marginal case.

    Meanwhile, he would have voted with "the Left" or whatever on a range of issues, including "civil liberty" issues like abortion, gay rights and so forth. The difference would come in a limited number of close criminal cases.

  • Chipper Jones||

    Kind of a big difference isn't it? Abortion and gay rights are pretty safe in this country, and Gorsuch hasn't exactly showed he'll be a problem on those fronts. Meanwhile if you want to avoid prison for smoking plants Garland is your worst nightmare.

  • John||

    And the court is one vote away from completely reading the 2nd Amendment out of the Constitution and barely recognizes it even with Heller and McDonald. If you live in the wrong state, it is basically impossible to legally own a firearm and you have fewer and fewer rights against search and seizure but everything is great because you can get an abortion or marry your gay lover.

    Your constitutional rights are only as good as elite society approves of them. Elite society loves gays and abortion so those rights are secure. Elite society doesn't think much of drug users and gun owners, so those rights are a lot more tenuous.

  • Uncle Joe||

    Who the hell is this "elite society" & how do I get a membership card?

    I'm also curious to know which states have made it impossible to own a gun. There are now 7 states with only one abortion provider, forcing women to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion.

    Seriously, the so called "elites" are as divided as the rest of us. I suspect most of the 2A absolutists are also supportive of harsh prison sentences for drugs.

  • Imissbuckley||

    "I suspect most of the 2A absolutists are also supportive of harsh prison sentences for drugs."

    Yeeeah, not on this website. To find asinine opinions on the Drug War try SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). www.learnaboutsam.org.

  • DenverJ||

    True not on this site. But in general he's right. Rednecks are all in favor of putting those pot smokin hippies in jai.l

  • Echospinner||

    Back in the day the rednecks had the weed. Well maybe not the good stuff but they had a lot of it. Spent time in Kentucky - Tennessee area hiking and traveling when I was younger.

    Perhaps that has changed these days.

  • ThomasD||

    "Rednecks are all in favor of putting those pot smokin hippies in jail"

    Sarcasm? Or doesn't know any actual rednecks?

  • kevrob||

    Better stay away from Copperhead Rd....

    Kevin R

  • Tionico||

    maybe some would favour harsh consequences for the crazy drugs, but very few would support prison for possessing a common weed that has been declared a Schedule One substance, which we ALL know is whacked..... Most of we who favour the right of the individual to own and carry about and use arms a;sp strongly support the right of anyone to make whatever use of the weed that duPont arranged to be taken of the market because its continued production MIGHT hinder the success of duPont's new fibre for the manufacture of rope. We who are in favour of an armed society are also strongly opposed to any level of government telling us, or anyone else, how they should live. After all, it was THAT fact sparked our War for Independence. Our forefathers had reached the end of King George Three and his henchmen meddling in their lives.

  • AZ Gunowner||

    I'm not. End the "war on drugs", all drugs.

    That war has done more damage to the BoR than can be stated. 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 8ths, they've all been damaged.

    "Impossible to own a gun", well no.

    but in NJ and CA it is impossible to carry one.

  • kevrob||

    NY state doesn't make it easy on handgun owners.

    See: https://preview.tinyurl.com/NYmagHeller New York magazine article.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Alito sucks.

  • John||

    He does on search and seizure issues. He is great on the 2nd Amendment and the administrative state but horrible on the 4th. God forbid any of them manage to not be horrible in some way.

  • Rossami||

    Alito seems to be deliberately trying to outcompete Ginsburg for the title of "Most Unhinged Justice". Alito's blind deference to law enforcement is appalling.

  • What's the frequency, Kenneth?||

    "Reasonable" has always left enough room to drive a BEARCAT through. :-(

  • Tony||

    "Reasonable" is a subjective word, so if you're the only one who thinks you're right about how it's defined, you're automatically wrong, no?

  • BigT||

    Like you on most subjects - unreasonable and wrong.

  • Rat on a train||

    We have consensus on what is reasonable so it is all good.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    Mind. Blown.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    Cops doing more cop stuff.

    Warning: autoplay, possibly silent

  • ||

    Like that 9-0 rental car search decision a couple weeks ago, these cases aren't remotely hard.

    When are courts going to start holding police and prosecutors accountable for such flagrant disregard for rights?

  • Chipper Jones||

    This is the dirty little secret isn't it? The Supreme Court lays down the rules, but rules don't really apply to the King's Men.

    And when they do, well, oh yeah now I remember, that contraband was in plain view.

  • MSimon||

    I smelled pot.

    Better than a search warrant and easier to get.

  • Ron||

    Police shouldn't even be allowed on the property without a warrant

  • John||

    No they should not and they are not. And this case affirms that.

  • Rat on a train||

    But I smelled marijuana and I needed to bust down your door before you could dispose of the evidence.

  • Rossami||

    Perhaps they should not but they are. And for the most part, we want them allowed onto limited parts of the property.

    Consider the following. A neighbor is allowed to knock on your door - and has to be allowed onto part of your property just to reach the doorbell. If you have a mailbox that's still attached to the house, the mailman is allowed onto your property to deliver the mail. A salesman is also allowed to come to your door. There is no clear reason why police shouldn't have the same general permission that you implicitly grant to the rest of the world by virtue of having a front door and doorbell.

    Now, there might be a good policy reason why police should have less rights than the general public but there's nothing in the Constitution that requires them to do so.

    Second, remember that we also consider police to be emergency responders. Do you really want police taking time to get a warrant before responding to your call about your father's heart attack? Or your report of a home invasion? Now, you could say that those are examples of inviting the police onto your property - and that is the legal standard. But it's also an exception to your absolutist rule.

  • BYODB||

    Police can come onto your property, I suppose, but if they find anything it's inadmissible in a court of law unless it's just laying around in plain sight. Also you can shoot them legally, depending on the state, since they are trespassing. You may or may not need an explicit 'no trespassing' sign to get away with it.

    Also, your example is retarded: of course the police are allowed to come onto your property when you have explicitly invited them to do so (RE: medical / robbery examples). The rule of thumb is that police are like vampires, they can't come in unless you invite them and both your examples involve an explicit invitation.

    A better example is do you want the police breaking your door down because they think, without any evidence or probable cause, that your father is having a heart attack or that someone might be in your house robbing you. The answer to that is almost certainly no.

  • commentguy||

    You can't legally shoot someone just for trespassing in any state. You need to have a reasonable belief that your life is in danger, or the trespasser needs to be breaking and entering, etc.

    You called the example of a call about someone's father's heart attack "retarded" because it's an invitation, but you assume (for no immediately obvious reason) that I have the right to invite someone onto my father's property. And what about my neighbor's property - can I authorize the police to go in there in an emergency? Maybe think about people's comments for a bit longer before calling them retarded - sometimes the issues are more complex than they first appear!

  • ThomasD||

    But they aren't 'just' trespassing. If the cop was cutting the corner of your lot in order to get somewhere else I'd agree. But he is not doing that. He coming on to your property, armed, and with the intent of violating your rights with force.

    I'm not recommending you shoot him. But I do see that responding with lethal force could be justified.

  • Rat on a train||

    Now, there might be a good policy reason why police should have less rights than the general public but there's nothing in the Constitution that requires them to do so.
    The 4th Amendment

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Um, police should not and do not have the "same general permission". Police action imports the repressive police power of the state, and must be curtailed within reasonable limits ab initio. Mailmen and salesmen are just doing their jobs.

  • Uncle Joe||

    A cop can come on your property to ring your doorbell, or leave a note in your mailbox. A cop can't come on your property to search for anything without getting a warrant. Lifting a tarp without a warrant is an obvious violation of the 4th Amendment.

    Seems pretty straightforward.

  • kevrob||

    You can post your property: "No solicitors." Put the sign where it can be seen from the street,
    or on the front gate. The fence the gate is part of is part of what defines "the curtilage."
    Solicitors who cross it unbidden are trespassing, absent local ordinances to the contrary,
    and some exceptions. IANAL. Consult one and pay the fee for more professional advice
    than this. Enforcing this against 1st-time violators is next to futile. You can get the cops
    to cite someone for trespassing once they've been warned. It won't keep the JWs away, sadly.

    Beware the large, smelly, slobbering dog is a sign I've wanted to post, on occasion.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Are we going to give Roberts some credit for assigning this opinion to Sotomayor?

    If he didn't support her interpretation, he would have assigned it to a less passionate Justice to write.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    My understanding is that this probably means he's reserving some other opinion for somebody on his side of the Court. They try to share around opportunities to write opinions.

    An 8-1 decision is a good opportunity to let a Justice you don't normally agree with get some licks in.

  • Benitacanova||

    Affirmative action. He's gotta throw her a bone now and then.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Would Alito allow a cop to enter your garage to search a car?

    What about your living room to search a bicycle?

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Depends on whether the lock breaks on the first kick, I suppose.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Would you, could you, search a car?
    Off the street, no matter how far?
    If there's booze, is it a bar?
    Would you, could you, stretch the lawr?

  • Sevo||

    "Would you, could you, stretch the lawr?"

    http://instantrimshot.com/

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I'm not a poet and don't I know it!

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    That Sam(Alito)-I-Am. That Sam-I-Am. I do not like that Sam-I-Am.

  • Dillinger||

    don't like curtilage.
    if contraband, then good search.
    "justice" alito.

  • BYODB||


    The sole dissent in the case was filed by Justice Samuel Alito, who insisted that the police had every right to engage in this sort of warrantless activity. "The Fourth Amendment prohibits 'unreasonable' searches," Justice Alito maintained. "What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable. The Court's decision is not."


    Impeach Alito, he's a danger to the country. Far more so than Trump, which perhaps isn't saying much.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    I'll curtil your ledge!

  • MSimon||

    Contra Band.

    A Reagan era group.

  • Longtobefree||

    Where the cops messed up was in the process. First you confiscate the motorcycle under asset forfeiture, THEN you search it since it is now yours. No need for a warrant, no need to even make up charges, just take the damn thing,

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    The "wise Latina" is actually correct on this? Well, yeah. And good for her for once.

  • Karl B.||

    Obtaining a warrant in this case would have been a slam dunk. Why violate rights when it would be so easy not to?

  • josh||

    Maybe I don't follow the court enough, but I don't get how Alito could possibly have dissented. The man went to law school, right?

  • josh||

    Sorry....I shouldn't have referred to law school as some sort of training ground to better understand the constitution.

  • Headache||

    WTF - No Trump bashing, Nick must be vacationing in Martha's Vineyard

  • Old Smokin' Egg||

    The real problem long predates Alito, and predates Alito by decades. In 1924, the Supreme Court decided Hester v. U.S., in which they put forth the "open fields" doctrine, ruling that Fourth Amendment protection in "persons, houses, papers, and effects" doesn't extend to one's privately owned open fields. In 1984, the Supremes decided Oliver v. U.S., applying Hester with a vengeance: police officers who had walked around a no-trespassing sign to look for marijuana on a farm had not violated the owner's Fourth Amendment rights.

    Alito's stance isn't inconsistent with these earlier precedents; the court's job came down to a matter of deciding what sort of private property enjoyed Fourth Amendment protection and what sort didn't. What's really needed is a Supreme Court opinion that pushes back against Hester and Oliver, and that extends protection from warrantless searches to all of one's property, whether or not it happens to be one's personal dwelling.

  • vek||

    Didn't Sotomayer get the memo that the left is now in favor of police states? I guess if it had been a motorcycle with the Stars And Bars painted on the gas tank it would have been okay or something?

    I guess it's good the SC still decides some things correctly...

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    John, or one of the other constitutionalists can help me out on this one, but hasn't SCOTUS ruled that ALL searches w/o a warrant are to be deemed unreasonable, absent certain exigent circumstances?

  • Greg_Cherryson||

    Much more troubling than Alito's dissent is the "concurring" Thomas attacking the exclusionary rule.

  • Shoreline1||

    I was busted in a similar situation. If you don't have the time and money to fight the government, the government can get away with about anything.

  • TWW||

    If a defendant is signaled by the police (red lights, siren) but pulls into his curtilage before he is stopped. Is his auto subject to a no-warrant search?

  • Rockabilly||

    The fucking commies lost.

    ahahahahahahahaahahaha!!!!

  • inoyu||

    Please start with IRTO, I Read The Opinions. Then allow that the opinions don't include all the relevant facts. For example, the officer had reason to believe that he was looking at a stolen vehicle which could vanish at any time. That's the exigent circumstance exception and a good one.

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