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How 2 recent SCOTUS cases could change police search and seizure

Two cases recently argued before SCOTUS could narrow or expand warrantless searches – and they could reach back to what police are doing now


2018 started off with a double-feature in the U.S. Supreme Court starring the Fourth Amendment and police authority to search and seize.

Collins v. Virginia

Motorcyclist Ryan Collins whizzed by an officer at 140 mph, eluding efforts to stop him. The officer did get photos and a license plate number. After seeing images of the parked bike on Collins’ Facebook page, the officer tracked it to the home of his girlfriend where Collins spent several nights a week. There the officer saw the Suzuki in the driveway nosing out from under a tarp, walked up, and uncovered it. The license plate and VIN confirmed it was the motorcycle – and that it was stolen.

2018 started off with a double-feature in the U.S. Supreme Court starring the Fourth Amendment and police authority to search and seize. (Photo/Pixabay)
2018 started off with a double-feature in the U.S. Supreme Court starring the Fourth Amendment and police authority to search and seize. (Photo/Pixabay)

This case pits the automobile exception to a warrant requirement against the Fourth Amendment’s protection of a home and its curtilage from warrantless searches.

The automobile exception arose out of a 1925 traffic stop. Because vehicles are mobile and, the Supreme Court added in 1985, carry a diminished expectation of privacy for their occupants, police may search them on the spot without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe they contain evidence of a crime.

Collins’ attorney conceded the officer had probable cause to believe the motorcycle he saw from the street was the one that had eluded him. He argued a competing Fourth Amendment principle trumped the automobile exception – that when officers go to a residence to look for contraband, even mobile contraband (such as drugs), they need a warrant absent exigent circumstances.

The Virginia Supreme Court did not rule on whether exigent circumstances existed, relying instead on a categorical application of the automobile exception. Accordingly, the government was limited to that argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The government’s attorney acknowledged the long-standing warrant requirement protection of homes and their curtilage, but argued the motorcycle was readily mobile and Collins had less expectation of privacy in it parked outside his girlfriend’s house in view of the street than what the Court had decided in previous curtilage cases. The attorney concluded that if the Court wanted to limit the categorical automobile exception, it should draw that line between the home and the curtilage.    

Justices Sotomayor, Gorsuch, and Kagan seemed reluctant to draw a new, bright line between the home and curtilage. As Sotomayor asked,

“Even if the police know that the driver of this car is away on vacation and won’t be returning for two weeks, they’re not required to go to a magistrate and get a warrant?”

And Justice Roberts pressed the government on whether the categorical automobile exception would apply to vehicles actually in a house, like Jay Leno’s, “Where he’s got dozens of rare cars?”

But Justice Alito seemed open to the government’s privacy argument when he noted that the officer walking a few feet up the driveway was not that different than if the bike had been parked on the street and the home wasn’t even Collins’.

Byrd v. United States

Terence Byrd was driving his fiancée’s rental car when a trooper pulled him over for driving too long in the left lane while passing, and “suspiciously” keeping his hands in the 10-2 positions on the steering wheel.

During the stop, Byrd acted nervous and admitted he had a marijuana cigarette in the car. Troopers decided to search the car, advising Byrd they didn’t need his consent because the rental agreement didn’t authorize him as a driver. In the trunk, troopers found body armor and heroin, which Byrd acknowledged he had planned to sell.

Byrd’s attorney argued the rental agreement didn’t determine Byrd’s constitutional rights. What mattered was whether Byrd had a reasonable expectation of privacy when, with the permission of his fiancée, he put his belongings in the trunk.

Justices Breyer, Roberts and Gorsuch indicated they preferred a bright-line rule that would be easier to apply than a circumstances dependent, case-by-case determination of reasonable expectation of privacy. As Chief Justice Roberts noted,

“One of the things that I think is very important in these types of cases is the ability to give clear guidance not only to the courts but to the police.”

The government attorney offered such a rule. If a driver of a rental car is not included on the rental agreement, he does not have enough of a connection to the car to treat it as his “effect” protected by the Fourth Amendment.

But Justice Sotomayor worried that would authorize “police to stop and search every rental car, without probable cause, that might be on the road.” When the government responded there was no evidence such stops were “a widespread problem,” Sotomayor triggered laughter in the courtroom by noting the troopers conceded they stopped Byrd “because he was driving a rental car” and they found it “suspicious” that his hands were positioned where every driving school teaches you to place them.

Retroactive application of Fourth Amendment decisions

The rulings in these cases – expected by the end of June – are difficult to predict. If the Court decides them on “settled principles of law,” they could apply retroactively to any case where a conviction was not yet final. Conversely, if the decisions make "a clear break with the past," the new principles would be nonretroactive.

Accordingly, in the interim, police may want to:

  • Hold off on warrantless searches of vehicles on a home’s curtilage absent exigent circumstances distinct from the automobile exception
  • Not rely on a rental car agreement’s non-authorization of the driver to search a vehicle.

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