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Supreme Court Limits Warrantless Search of Vehicles

In a decision that’s been hailed as a big win for privacy rights, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that police officers must generally have a warrant before searching vehicles parked at a private home or on its surrounding property.

It’s the second time this month that the country’s highest federal court has set new limits on police searches of vehicles. On May 14, the Supreme Court ruled that unauthorized drivers of rental cars, whose names are not on the rental agreement, should generally be afforded the same privacy protections as authorized drivers. 

In Tuesday’s 8-1 ruling, the court sided with Ryan Collins, a Virginia man who accused police of impinging upon his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure when an officer walked onto his girlfriend’s driveway in 2013 and pulled back a tarp covering his motorcycle. The officer, who did not have a warrant, ran a search of the license plate on the bike and discovered it was stolen. Collins was arrested and later convicted of possessing stolen property.

Collins, however, accused the officer of improperly searching the motorcycle, which was parked a few feet away from his girlfriend’s home. His attorneys argued that the Fourth Amendment applies to private homes and also to areas surrounding them ― known in legalese as “curtilage” ― and the officer violated this right in his search. 

If law enforcement officers can search vehicles inside the curtilage without a warrant, then “any vehicle with probable cause could be searched anywhere, any time,” Collins’ lawyers wrote in their Supreme Court petition, according to Vice News. “Officers could creep into garages and carports at night, removing tarps, rummaging for contraband in glove boxes. 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.”

Writing on behalf of the eight justices who ruled in Collins’ favor, Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed that “searching a vehicle parked in the curtilage involves not only the invasion of the Fourth Amendment interest in the vehicle but also an invasion of the sanctity of the curtilage.”

She pushed back at a suggestion by Virginia officials that a distinction should be made between “fixed structures” like garages and other areas around a home. Sotomayor said such a “bright-line rule” would “automatically ... grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages but deprive those persons without such resources of any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage.”

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