In Win For Privacy Rights, Court Says Police Need Warrant To Search Area Around Home

May 29, 2018
Originally published on May 30, 2018 8:56 am

In a win for privacy rights, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that police may not search the area around a private home without a warrant, even when they think they have seen stolen property on the premises.

In other words, police can't just look on property or peek in windows, see something they think is illegal and start searching without a warrant.

The case began when an orange and black motorcycle twice evaded police in Virginia. After some investigation, Albemarle County police were able to track down the driver, Ryan Collins, to his girlfriend's house. Later, Officer David Rhodes saw a similar motorcycle under a tarp outside a private home.

When Collins arrived at the home, he was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property and convicted. The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the conviction, ruling that the search was proper.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. Writing for the court majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the private area around a house, known as the curtilage, is part of the home itself and cannot be searched without a warrant. The court rejected the police's contention that the motorcycle was like an automobile, which the court has long ruled can be searched without a warrant if an officer sees something in plain sight.

Sotomayor noted that the court has always said that the power to search an automobile does not extend to the area around the house. The majority noted that police must have a warrant to search a suspect's home and to enter the curtilage.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with the majority, saying it correctly resolved the issue in this case but adding that he writes separately because he has serious doubts about imposing that rule on the states.

Nearly a century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that police could search a car without a warrant if they had probable cause to believe there was evidence of a crime inside the car.

At issue in this case was how far the mobility argument can go in eliminating the warrant requirement in the driveway of a private home.

The Supreme Court has ruled previously that police cannot search the curtilage without a warrant, but the question here was whether the warrant requirement applied to motor vehicles parked within that area.

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A ruling by the United States Supreme Court affects just how much police can do when they grow curious about your home. The court ruled that police may not search the area around a private home without a warrant even when they have good reason to think there's stolen property on the premises. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: By an 8 to 1 vote, the court said that police can't just walk up a private driveway or onto a car patio or a garden to see if there's proof of a crime there. Such an invasion of private property, the court said, cannot be justified under the exception the court has carved out to allow police to stop vehicles for traffic violations and, where justified, to search the car without a warrant. The case began when a man on an orange-and-black motorcycle twice evaded police in Virginia. After some investigation, police were able to figure out who the likely motorcycle rider was and where he lived, at least most of the time, at his girlfriend's house. Officer David Rhodes drove to the address and saw what appeared to be a similar motorcycle under a tarp. He walked up the driveway, pulled off the tarp, took down the license plate number and ran a search on it which revealed the motorcycle was stolen.

Collins, who later admitted he bought the bike without title, was arrested and convicted of receiving stolen property. At each stage of the case, Collins' lawyer challenged the warrantless search contending that the evidence was illegally obtained and thus could not be used against his client. At each stage, Collins lost. Now, normally when police search a home or the private property around it, which is known as the curtilage, they have to get a warrant. But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the warrantless search of the bike was justified under the so-called automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the court majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the heart of the Constitution's protection of curtilage is the right to retreat into one's own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion. Just like the front porch, the side garden or the area outside the front window, she said, the driveway enclosure where Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle requires a search warrant. Boston University constitutional and criminal law professor Tracey Maclin.

TRACEY MACLIN: I think the justices were worried about how Virginia's rule would affect people not just in the inner city - 'cause there's not a lot of curtilage around apartment buildings - but in the suburbs, frankly.

TOTENBERG: The lone dissenter from yesterday's ruling was Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion saying that while he agreed with the court's reading of the constitutional question, he doubted the Supreme Court's authority to impose that constitutional rule on the states. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.