The police cannot search your home or the area immediately around it without a warrant. In contrast, the Fourth Amendment does not generally require police officers to get a warrant to search a vehicle.

In a case originating out of Charlottesville, Collins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today concerning whether a vehicle parked on a driveway can be searched without a warrant under the “automobile exception.”

The facts in the case are straightforward. A police officer was driving in an unmarked cruiser on the highway when a custom orange and black motorcycle passed at 100 m.p.h. The officer turned on his emergency lights and pursued, but the motorcyclist fled at up to 140 m.p.h.

Following a thorough investigation, the police determined the motorcycle likely was stolen property that Eric Jones sold to Ryan Collins. Police identified Collins’s probable residence and saw what appeared to be a motorcycle covered by a tarp under a partially enclosed structure feet from the home. Rather than getting a warrant, an officer walked up to the covered motorcycle, took the tarp off, and then recorded the VIN and license plate number.

There is no dispute that the officer had probable cause to search the motorcycle and could have obtained a warrant to do exactly what he did. The question the Supreme Court must now consider is whether the automobile exception trumps the fundamental sanctity of the home from warrantless searches.

The Supreme Court has long held that the area immediately surrounding a home – referred to as the “curtilage” in judicial opinions – enjoys the same protection as the inside of the home. Namely, the police need a warrant in order to search without your consent, unless some exigency, like the sound of domestic violence inside of a home, means there is no time to get a warrant.

The Virginia Supreme Court, however, found that an “inherent exigency” exists with automobiles because they are mobile. The court thought it did not matter whether someone could actually get to the motorcycle, uncover it, start it and leave without being apprehended by an officer parked on the street a few feet away. Rather, the Court said that an exigency always exists with vehicles, so the specific facts were irrelevant.

The police, however, should have to consider whether an actual exigency exists to invade the privacy of a home without a warrant. For this reason, the Rutherford Institute, Cato Institute, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and even the American Motorcyclist Association, among other organizations, have filed briefs in support of Collins. The ACLU of Virginia applauds and agrees with these efforts and hopes the Supreme Court continues to apply the strongest privacy protections to people’s homes. 

Stay informed

ACLU of Virginia is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National