The Supreme Court ruled overwhelmingly in favor of a criminal defendant Tuesday in holding that a Virginia search of a man's motorcycle — parked in his driveway — was unconstitutional.
Nonetheless, the court's two most conservative justices — Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — laid out a divergent pair of visions for restricting legal rights against police searches: one that would limit people's protections against illegal searches conducted by state and local police and one that would provide less protection under the Fourth Amendment than any other current justice believes exists.
The case presented a rather straightforward question about what Fourth Amendment protections exist when a person's vehicle is searched when parked on private property adjacent to their house.
Police had probable cause to believe that Ryan Austin Collins' motorcycle — covered by a tarp at the top of the driveway in a space "enclosed on two sides by a brick wall ... and on the third side by the house" — was stolen. After walking up the driveway, uncovering the motorcycle, and getting the license and vehicle identification number, police confirmed that suspicion and arrested Collins.
The decision was a lopsided one, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing for the 8–1 majority that the warrantless search of Collins' motorcycle was not allowed under the "automobile exception" to the general requirement that police need a warrant to conduct a search at a person's home.
"[T]he ability visually to observe an area protected by the Fourth Amendment does not give officers the green light physically to intrude on it," Sotomayor wrote.
Under the "automobile exception," police generally can search a car if they have probable cause without needing to seek a warrant. This is so, the Supreme Court has ruled, because automobiles are so easily moved and because of "the pervasive regulation of vehicles" by governments. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled the exception applied here, making the search of Collins' motorcycle a legal one.
Calling it an "easy case," however, Sotomayor wrote that "the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself." Because a person's house and the nearby space — referred to as curtilage — are independently protected spaces under the Fourth Amendment, generally requiring a warrant to search, the "automobile exception" doesn't somehow make it OK to access that property to search it without a warrant.
"The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage," she concluded for the court.
Thomas joined Sotomayor's opinion — he agreed that the police officer's actions clearly violated the Fourth Amendment — but nonetheless laid out a view that would fundamentally alter the rules that have applied to state and local policing in the United States since John F. Kennedy was president.
Turning to originalism and the Supremacy Clause, Thomas took issue with the effect of the exclusionary rule on the case. The rule was established by the Supreme Court and says that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment is suppressed — unable to be admitted — in any criminal trial.
Thomas presented a vision of the law that would allow states to admit evidence at trial that was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Noting that the "Founders would not have understood the logic of the exclusionary rule," because there was no such practice at the time, Thomas wrote that Supreme Court rulings made clear the rule is "not required by the Constitution." As such, he wrote, the Supremacy Clause — which raises federal law over state laws — should not apply to this situation, since the exclusionary rule is not based on the Constitution or a federal law.
Thus, Thomas wrote, "I am skeptical of this Court’s authority to impose the exclusionary rule on the States" — a decision the court made in 1961.
And he agreed with the court's ruling.
Alito was the only justice who believed the court got the Fourth Amendment ruling itself wrong.
In his dissenting opinion, Alito laid out a view of the Fourth Amendment that potentially could — if ever given effect — allow for a wider swath of warrantless police searches.
"[T]he Court’s strikingly unreasonable decision is based on a misunderstanding of Fourth Amendment basics," he wrote, focusing on the item searched — the motorcycle — and not the location of the search.
"[W]e should ask whether the reasons for the 'automobile exception' are any less valid in this new situation," he wrote, referencing the court's earlier cases on the topic. "Is the vehicle parked in the drive-way any less mobile? Are any greater privacy interests at stake? If the answer to those questions is 'no,' then the automobile exception should apply. And here, the answer to each question is emphatically 'no.'"
While Sotomayor noted that, under Alito's logic, the police officer in this case could have entered the home itself if he saw the motorcycle in the living room from the street, Alito himself insisted otherwise, writing that "a case-specific inquiry regarding the degree of intrusion on privacy is entirely appropriate when the motor vehicle to be searched is located on private property."
It was not clear what actual rule that would establish or how this sliding-rule application of the general warrant requirement for home searches would apply in other cases, but Alito summed up his own general view about Collins' case in the opening to his dissent: "The Fourth Amendment prohibits 'unreasonable' searches. What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable."