If the state of Virginia gets its way at the Supreme Court, police across the country would have the authority to search someone’s car, even if it’s parked inside a private property, without a warrant.
Traditionally, cops haven’t been allowed to search inside a house or its “curtilage” — the legal name for the structures that surround a house, such as a porch — without a warrant. But in 2013, Virginia cops did just that to a man named Ryan Collins. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether the police violated Collins’ Fourth Amendment rights by searching his motorcycle without a warrant.
Collins v. Virginia, which the court will hear on Tuesday, could redefine just how far police can intrude on private property.
In 2013, two Virginia cops were on the hunt for a motorcyclist who’d outrun them in two high-speed pursuits. They suspected Collins. After the officers searched his social media profiles and discovered a photo of a covered motorcycle parked at his girlfriend’s house, one of the officers headed to her house. He found the motorcycle parked in the back of the driveway beneath an enclosure, which Collins’ lawyers argue falls under the definition of curtilage.
“The curtilage is treated as part of the home, and the home is given the most scrupulous protection under the Fourth Amendment,” explained Tracey Maclin, a professor at Boston University Law. “That’s where you barbecue, that’s where you have a pool, that’s where you might sit out sunbathing.”
But the officer lifted the cover on the motorcycle anyway and discovered it was stolen. Collins was soon convicted of possessing stolen property.
In his appeal, Collins’ lawyers argued the police had no right to search Collins’ enclosure in the first place under the Fourth Amendment. Allowing police to search vehicles located inside the curtilage, they said, could dramatically curtail the protections of the Fourth Amendment.
“Any vehicle with probable cause could be searched anywhere, any time. Officers
could creep into garages and carports at night, removing tarps, rummaging for contraband in glove boxes,” Collins’ lawyers wrote in their petition to the Supreme Court. “If officers can intrude upon curtilage to search a vehicle, there is no reason why they could not walk through a house to reach a car in the backyard.”