Recently, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Collins v. Virginia. The Court pinned two popular Fourth Amendment terms against each other: curtilage v. the automobile exception. In this case, the issue is whether a motorcycle parked on a driveway next to a house under a tarp is curtilage of a home warranting Fourth Amendment protection or does the automobile exception supersede such protection and excuse the need for a warrant?
What is Curtilage? And, Who Cares?
No. Curtilage is not part of your knee. Curtilage is an area surrounding a home that can receive the same Fourth Amendment protection of a home in certain circumstances. In defining whether an area is curtilage, courts look at four factors: (1) the proximity of the thing to the dwelling; (2) whether the thing is within an enclosure surrounding the home; (3) what the thing is used for; and (4) what steps, if any, the resident took to protect the thing from observation/access by people passing by. If after looking at these factors, the court determines the “thing” to be within the curtilage of the home or dwelling, it receives the same protections that are for the inside of the home itself. In this case, there is no argument that the motorcycle is within the curtilage of the home.
If probable cause exists to believe evidence or contraband will be found, the automobile exception allows police to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. The scope of this exception allows law enforcement to search the vehicle, including any containers in it that may conceal incriminating evidence or contraband. The Court defines this exception as “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.” So, the question becomes: what happens when the vehicle is within the curtilage of the home?
Arguing for curtilage protection, Mr. Collins’s attorney reasoned that “the Fourth Amendment, by its terms, requires a warrant to specify the place to be searched.” He further argued that if police want to search the home and its curtilage, then they should get a warrant that specifies this. The argument centers on the idea the home and its curtilage are more important concerns than the ability for a vehicle to be readily moveable and actually moved prior to the warrant being obtained.
Another primary focus of this argument is the location of the motorcycle when the police discovered it. Mr. Collins’s attorney noted that the Court in Florida v. Jardines determined curtilage is part of the home for Fourth Amendment purposes. This is a point that Trevor S. Cox, Acting Solicitor General of Virginia, tried to argue against.
Several Justices took issue with this argument, however. As they see it, this would entail that even if the motorcycle were to be sitting in the living room of the hypothetical home, that a police officer could enter the home without warrant to search it. In essence, if they disregard the curtilage of the home as Mr. Cox suggests they should, it could lead to a disregard of the home itself. As Justice Kagan said during oral arguments, “. . . the home is the most sacrosanct of places. And, actually, we don’t think that the home stops at the door.” This thought by Justice Kagan suggests that the driveway, garage, and directly surrounding area (or curtilage) are just as protected as the sacred home is.
If Collins ultimately wins this case, it strengthens the backbone of Fourth Amendment protections of the home and its curtilage. If Virginia prevails, then the automobile exception will supersede Fourth Amendment protection of curtilage and potentially a person’s home, which would water down this important constitutional protection.
Alec Rolain is a law clerk with Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC. He is a second-year law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. 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 St. Paul; Criminal Appeals Attorney St. Paul MN; and Criminal Attorney St. Paul MN