SCOTUS REVERSES SCV IN FOURTH AMENDMENT CASE
(Posted May 29, 2018) The Supreme Court of the United States today hands down a ruling in Collins v. Virginia, on certiorari to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The high Court reverses the SCV in a case implicating the automobile exception to the fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
I covered this case in September 2016, when the SCV handed down its 6-1 decision. I outlined a set of facts that placed the appellant, Collins, firmly in what I consider to be stupid-criminal territory. I won’t repeat the lengthy factual history here; suffice it to say that unless Collins had a winning angle based on the exclusionary rule, he was headed for an appellate loss.
This case originally made its way through the Court of Appeals of Virginia, which held that the warrantless search was lawful because of exigent circumstances. The SCV granted a writ and affirmed on other grounds: the automobile exception, based on the inherent mobility of vehicles. Justice Mims dissented alone from that ruling.
Yesterday’s dissent becomes today’s Opinion of the Court (sort of). Justice Sotomayor writes for an almost-unanimous SCOTUS, holding that the motorcycle was within the curtilage of a house, so it was entitled to Fourth Amendment protection. And the police officer’s action in walking 30 feet up the driveway to peek under a tarpaulin, into a semi-enclosed garage area, triggered a warrant requirement.
The Court’s opinion describes this as “an easy case,” based on this hypothetical:
Imagine a motorcycle parked inside the living room of a house, visible through a window to a passerby on the street. Imagine further that an officer has probable cause to believe that the motorcycle was involved in a traffic infraction. Can the officer, acting without a warrant, enter the house to search the motorcycle and confirm whether it is the right one? Surely not.
Justice Thomas files a concurring opinion to raise a topic not at issue in this appeal, because Collins didn’t raise it: Do states have to obey the federal exclusionary rule? Mapp v. Ohio (1961) certainly says so; but his Honor believes that decision to have been unsound; he publicly urges his colleagues to take up the issue soon.
Justice Alito dissents alone. If you like sensational language in appellate opinions, here’s where you’ll find it. Exhibit A:
The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable” searches. What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable. The Court’s decision is not.
And here’s Exhibit B:
An ordinary person of common sense would react to the Court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life. If that is the law, he exclaimed, “the law is a ass—a idiot.” C. Dickens, Oliver Twist 277 (1867).
I always like good literary references to spice up judicial opinions. Justice Alito notes that if the motorcycle were parked just 30 feet away, at the curb, a warrantless search would be uncontroversial. That short space should make no difference in the analysis, in his view.
The Court’s action doesn’t give Collins a complete victory; the Justices remand the case to the SCV to evaluate the facts under the exigency exception – the grounds that the CAV had originally used – to see if that applies instead.