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Automobile Exception

“[W}hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.”[1] Justice Sotomayor authored an important opinion in the bout between the Automobile Exception and the Curtilage Doctrine in Collins v. Virginia.[2] The Court held the automobile exception did not permit an officer to enter the curtilage of a home without a warrant to search the vehicle located there.

Automobile Exception Explained

Typically, warrantless searches are unreasonable and violate Fourth Amendment protections. There are, however, exceptions to this constitutional safeguard. A popular exception to the warrant requirement is the Automobile Exception. This exception states “if a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment permits the police to search the vehicle without more.”[3]

Curtilage Doctrine Explained

Under the Fourth Amendment, your home is the most sacred of places. Whether attempting to search your home; arrest you inside your home; or do anything that involves entering your dwelling, police will almost always need to obtain a warrant first. These protections also extend to the curtilage of the home. The Court looks at four factors to determine whether something is within curtilage. These include: (1) the proximity of thing to the dwelling; (2) whether the thing is within an enclosure surround he home; (3) what the thing is used for; and (4) what steps, if any, has the resident took to protect the thing from observation/access by people by passing by.[4]

Vehicles versus Homes

The two Fourth Amendment variants described above were finally pinned against one another in Collins v. Virginia. It was made abundantly clear, in both oral arguments and the written opinion, that the vehicle in question was within the curtilage of Mr. Collins’ home. Because of this, the Court had to determine whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a police officer to enter the curtilage of a home, without warrant or consent, in order to search a vehicle parked there.

Parts of the driveway, especially when directly next to the home, can be considered curtilage; and curtilage receives the same protections as the home itself. With this idea in mind and knowing that the home is the most sacred of Fourth Amendment areas, the decision became quite clear. “The automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.”

This holding, on its face, seems very favorable to Mr. Collins and other citizens alike. However, the majority opinion left the option for the state to show another exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement being present on remand. Specifically, the opinion suggests that exigent circumstances[5] could be present. Justice Thomas disagreed with this in his concurring opinion. Primarily on the point that even if another exception can be shown to have been present, the exclusionary rule should suppress the incriminating evidence that was obtained when the warrantless search initially occurred. This is due to the Court already now finding Mr. Collins’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated. When a violation of your rights occurs, the exclusionary rule can keep the incriminating evidence obtained in violation of those rights from being entered into court against you.[6] On remand, it will be very interesting to see if the court will retroactively attempt to avoid the exclusionary rule by finding a different warrant exception to be present.

Alec Rolain is a law clerk at Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC. He just finished his second year at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. Prior to law school, Alec attended St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona where he played baseball and made the MIAC all-sportsmanship team. Criminal Defense Lawyer Woodbury MN; DWI Attorney Woodbury; and Drug Crimes Lawyer Minnesota.

[1]Collins v. Virginia quoting Florida v. Jardines

[2]Previously, we examined Collins v. Virginia after oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court.

[3]Pennsylvania v. Labron

[4]United States v. Dunn

[5]Exigent Circumstances

[6]Mapp v. Ohio

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