The U.S. Supreme Court appeared divided Tuesday as to whether police may search a car parked in a driveway without a warrant.
The case’s complicated facts prompted the Court to look towards an unlikely source for guidance: the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
The so-called automobile exemption allows police officers to search cars without a warrant, provided they have probable cause. It is not clear, however, that the exemption operates at or near a private residence, where protections against unwarranted searches and seizures are considerably higher.
The case, Collins v. Virginia, arose in Charlottesville, Va., when Officer David Rhodes spotted a distinctive orange-and-black Suzuki motorcycle posting speeds well in excess of the legal limit. Rhodes gave pursuit, but abandoned the chase because the motorcycle reached speeds exceeding 140 miles per hour. According to Virginia’s brief, the bike had unique features indicating it had been modified for drag racing.
Through a subsequent investigation, Rhodes identified the driver as Ryan Collins and learned the motorcycle was stolen. He tracked the bike to a private residence. On arriving at the home, Rhodes spotted a vehicle resembling the bike under an opaque tarp abutting the garage. He walked up the driveway, removed the tarp, and found the bike. Collins was then arrested.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, Collins argues a warrant was required to search the area around the garage. In walking up the driveway to an enclosed space immediately proximate to the home, Collins says the officer was affecting a search of the house, where expectations of privacy are at their peak.
Collins further argues the police are attempting to leverage the narrow automobile exception to gain access to the house, a space the Fourth Amendment considers sacrosanct.
“The automobile exception is knocking at the door of the house,” Collins’ attorney Matthew Fitzgerald said during Tuesday’s arguments.
In rebuttal, Virginia says all elements of the automobile exception were present. The officer had clear probable cause, since the bike was connected to multiple felonies, the search was “brief, unintrusive, and limited in scope,” and there was a strong chance the bike could be moved quickly. A car’s mobility, which allows drivers to quickly dispose of evidence, is a long-standing justification for the automobile exception.
Virginia’s argument appeared to trouble Chief Justice John Roberts, who feared the presence of a car could give police unqualified access to a private garage, especially in circumstances where the car is clearly visible from the street. He cited a scene from Ferris Bueller, which features a luxury car stored in the sleek, glass-enclosed digs of supporting-man Cameron Frye.
“If you have an automobile in the house, [like], you know, Jay Leno’s house, right, where he’s got dozens of rare cars or the Porsche in Ferris Bueller. I mean, are you saying that you can just go in because it’s mobile and they got it in there somehow, they can get it out?” he asked.
The chief misidentified the car at issue, however. The movie does not feature a Porsche, but a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the motorcycle was visible from the street. Federal courts have long held that there is no privacy interest in objects in plain view.
“These police officers have a right to be on the street, they have a right to look at whatever is visible, and they could see the motorcycle from there, so is this a plain view case?” she asked.
Justice Samuel Alito said it was hard to see why this search should be treated differently than a search of a bike parked on the street, since the bike was just a few car lengths removed from the street, and the periphery of the home — known as the curtilage — was barely compromised.
Justice Neil Gorsuch took a different view, arguing the opinion which first established an automobile exception never imagined a circumstance under which the exception could be used to gain access to the home.
All told, it appeared a majority of the Court was ready to side with Collins by the argument’s conclusion.
A decision is expected by June.
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