Collins v. Virgina Limits the Fourth Amendment Automobile Exception

Collins v. Virginia

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the automobile exception does not allow police to enter the curtilage of home to search a parked vehicle. In Collins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court addressed a case where officers conducted a search of a parked vehicle that was believed to be stolen.

The Supreme Court discussed two important aspects of Fourth Amendment. The Court looked at both the automobile exception to obtaining a warrant and a protected area of the home called the curtilage.

The Fourth Amendment provides protection for you, your house, and your property against searches and seizures that are unreasonable. There are exceptions to this rule; the Automobile Exception being one of the most frequently used exceptions to the Fourth Amendment.

What is the Automobile Exception?

The Automobile Exception allows officers to search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe the vehicle has contraband or some other evidence related to a crime.

automobile exception
What is the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment?

The reasoning behind the Automobile Exception is that vehicles are easy to move. This allows officers to prevent evidence from disappearing or being relocated.

The officer can conduct a search of the vehicle without getting a warrant as long as they have probable cause for the search. For example, if an officer is walking by a vehicle parked on a street and sees through the window what looks like a bag of cocaine on the seat, the officer can conduct a search of the vehicle without getting a warrant.

Probable cause exists when facts and circumstances known to the police officer would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed or that property connected to a crime is located in a particular place.

What is a Curtilage?

The curtilage is the area directly adjacent to the home or surrounding the home. It is important for searches because both the curtilage and the home are protected by the Fourth Amendment, meaning an officer needs a warrant to search either of these two areas.

What is curtilage for Fourth Amendment purposes?

There is a four-factor test for whether an area is a curtilage which was established in United States v. Dunn. Courts consider:

  1. How close the area is to the house;
  2. Whether or not the area is within an enclosure by or around the home;
  3. What the area is used for; and
  4. Whether or not the resident of the home took steps to protect the area from observation or access to passers-by, and what the steps where.


Curtilage & the Automobile Exception

In Collins, Officer McCall of the Albemarle County Police Department in Virginia saw a driver commit a traffic violation on an orange and black motorcycle, but the driver eluded the officer’s attempts to stop. Another officer in the same department, Officer Rhodes, later saw a driver on an orange and black motorcycle speeding, but also was unable to stop the vehicle.

The officers compared notes and determined that the driver of the bike was the same individual on both occasions. After investigating, the officers found out that bike was stolen and in possession of a person named Ryan Collins. The officers then found photos of Collins on Facebook, where he was posing with an orange and black motorcycle at a house, in a driveway.

The officers determined that the home belonged to Collins’ girlfriend and that Collins stayed at the house several nights a week.

Officer Rhodes arrived to check things out. From the street, Officer Rhodes saw what he believed was a motorcycle under a tarp, parked the same way the motorbike in the Facebook photo was parked.

Without obtaining a warrant, Officer Rhodes walked up to the motorcycle, entering the enclosed area of the driveway it was parked in. The officer lifted the tarp covering the bike and, seeing that it was an orange and black motorcycle, took photographs of the vehicle and ran the plate number, which came up stolen. After replacing the tarp, Officer Rhodes went back to his vehicle and waited for Collins to return home.

After Collins came home, Officer Rhodes knocked on the front door and asked to speak to Collins, who agreed to the exchange. After being asked some questions, Collins admitted he bought the motorcycle without title and was arrested.

Collins v. Virginia – Legislative History

The trial court convicted Collins, specifically for receiving stolen property, despite Collins’ argument that Officer Rhodes had trespassed the curtilage of the home and conducted an illegal search without a warrant. After the case went to trial, the Court of Appeals in Virginia held that the officer had probable cause to believe the motorcycle under the tarp was the same as the one that evaded arrest and that the search of the bike without warrant was lawful under the Fourth Amendment because there were numerous exigencies that justified the officer’s entry and lifting of the tarp. The Supreme Court of Virginia reasoned further that the automobile exception to the search warrant requirement applied and that, as a result, the search without warrant was valid. The U.S. Supreme Court took on this case to determine whether the search was valid.

Federal Precedent

In past cases, the Supreme Court held an automobile search could be reasonable even without a warrant. For example, the Court discussed a case where officers had probable cause to think a car they saw traveling down the road had illegal liquor in it. Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132 (1925). The officer stopped the car to search it and found (and seized) the alcohol and arrested the people in the car. Other cases also illustrated that the mobility of vehicles and their ability to quickly move evidence out of the jurisdiction meant that cars had a lesser expectation of privacy than a home. California v. Carney, 471 U. S. 386, 390 (1985); Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U. S. 433, 441 (1973).

Collins v. Virginia – The Supreme Court Decision

The Court addressed three separate arguments made by the prosecution in Collins v. Virginia.

First, the Court considered whether Virginia’s reliance on Scher v. United States was misplaced. In Scher, officers received a tip that a particular car would be transporting bootleg alcohol at a specific date and time. The officers observed a vehicle that matched the description of the tip turning into a garage within the curtilage of the home. When the driver got out of the car, an officer came up to him and told the driver that a tip had been received about illegal substances in the car. After the driver confirmed the alcohol was in the trunk, the officer opened the trunk and found the liquor—seizing both the contraband and the driver. While the officer lacked a search warrant, the court found the search reasonable.

Unlike the attended car in Scher, here, the motorcycle was unattended and fully parked within the curtilage when the officer found it. The Court reiterated that Scher did not create a blanket rule allowing an officer to enter the curtilage without a warrant. The Court described Scher to be a case more about hot pursuit, rather than the automobile exception. [Hot pursuit falls under the warrant exception of exigent circumstances in criminal procedure and allows a cop to chase a suspect into a private area/home, meaning forcible entry is okay, if the officer saw a felony being committed and had to chase the suspect to prevent the person from hiding or getting rid of evidence.]

Further, the Court discussed that the Scher decision was tied to different facts than the case currently in front of the court.

Second, the Court addressed Virginia’s use of Pennsylvania v. Labron, and found it was also misplaced. In Labron, the vehicle in question was parked in the front driveway of Labron’s father-in-law’s house. However, Labron did not have a property interest in the farmhouse or the driveway himself that he could claim was protected by the Fourth Amendment.

In Collins, the Court held that if the area is curtilage, a parking patio or carport that an officer can see into from the street is just as protected from trespass and warrantless search as a garage that is totally enclosed.

As the last main argument, the Court looked at Virginia’s proposal for a bright-line rule in a socio-economic context. Essentially, the Court reasoned that affording one constitutional protection to people who can afford a covered garage would give them more constitutional rights than those who lack the resources for a garage adjacent to their home. The Court concluded that individualized case-by-case consideration as to whether an area is curtilage provides equal protection regardless of resources.

Collins v. Virginia – In Summary

An officer may not enter the curtilage of a home to conduct a warrantless search for a vehicle that may be parked there, assuming the officer did not follow the vehicle in hot pursuit.

Car covered by linen tarp in front of a house

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About the Author Board Certified Lawyer Benson Varghese

About the Author

Benson Varghese is the managing partner of Varghese Summersett. He is a seasoned attorney, highly esteemed for his comprehensive knowledge and expertise in the field. He has successfully handled thousands of state and federal cases, ranging from misdemeanor driving while intoxicated cases to capital offenses, showcasing his commitment to preserving justice and upholding the rights of his clients. His firm covers criminal defense, personal injury, and family law matters. Benson is also a legal tech entrepreneur. Benson is a go-to authority in the legal community, known for his ability to explain complex legal concepts with clarity and precision. His writings offer a wealth of in-depth legal insights, reflecting his extensive experience and his passion for the law. Not only is Benson an accomplished litigator, but he is also a dedicated advocate for his clients, consistently striving to achieve the best possible outcomes for them. His authorship provides readers with valuable legal advice and an understanding of the complexities of the criminal justice system. CriminalPersonal InjuryFamily Law Contact
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