The Fourth Amendment guarantees freedom from “unreasonable” searches and seizures by government agents like police officers. That has generally meant that the police are required to obtain warrants before they arrest someone or search their property — unless the police can point to a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. These exceptions include emergencies, situations where the person consents, and situations where evidence could quickly and easily be carried away or destroyed.
One of them, the so-called “automobile exception,” allows police to search cars without a warrant whenever they can show probable cause to believe a crime is in progress or has been committed. Since automobiles are highly mobile, police need this exception to prevent potential evidence from being taken away before a warrant can be obtained.
Over the history of our country, however, the courts have held that the warrant requirement is especially strict in the private home. This includes the premises surrounding the home, which courts call the “curtilage.”
In a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court, law enforcement argued that the automobile exception should apply even when the vehicle in question is parked within the curtilage of a home.
The case involved a distinctive black and orange motorcycle. Its rider had irritated the Albemarle County, Virginia, police department by committing traffic offenses and then speeding away, eluding their efforts to catch him.
Relying on a Facebook post, one officer tracked a suspect motorcycle down to a local address. There, he noticed what appeared to be a motorcycle parked under a tarp at the top of the driveway. Without a warrant, the officer entered the home’s curtilage and lifted the tarp.
Underneath was a motorcycle much like the one that had been eluding police. It also turned out to have been stolen.
The defendant was arrested and ultimately convicted of receiving stolen property.
The state defended the officer’s search using the automobile exception and the state courts ruled that it had been proper.
In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court found otherwise. “When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals,” the court has written.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reasoned that allowing the automobile exception when the vehicle is parked within a home’s curtilage would “render hollow the core 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.”
Justice Samuel Alito dissented.