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Automobile Exception v. Curtilage of residence. Curtilage wins.

An interesting case was decided recently by the United States Supreme Court. The question presented was whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits an officer, without consent or search warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a parked car in curtilage. The Court said NO. Collins v. Virginia 2018 DJDAR 4931.


During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame, an officer learned that the motorcycle was probably stolen and in the possession of Collins. Officers discovered photos on Facebook of the motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house, drove to the house, and parked on the street in front of the house. From the street the officers could see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a white tarp parked in the same location as the photos they reviewed. The residence was rented by Collins’ girlfriend and he was an overnight guest. This area was inside a partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house. Without a warrant or consent, officers walked to the top of the driveway and pulled back a tarp concealing the motorcycle so that they could see the license plate and VIN number to confirm it was stolen. The officers had to walk 30 feet or so up the driveway to remove the tarp. Officers took a photo and waited for Collins whom they arrested upon his return. Collins moved to suppress the evidence as a trespass under the Fourth Amendment on the curtilage of the residence. The motion to suppress was denied based upon the automobile exception. The Supreme Court reversed.

Let’s take a moment and review legal definitions.


Curtilage of a residence
Traditionally, a buffer around the structure of a home, otherwise officers could walk right up and look into windows. Legally, it is the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home and is considered to be part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred. Florida v. Jardines considered the front porch, side garden, or area outside the front window to be part of the curtilage. (It can be argued that Jardines extended the curtilage of a home to the street it sits on.)

Automobile exception
Officers may make a warrantless search of an automobile if they have probable cause to believe something seizable is inside and lawful access to the vehicle.

Overnight guest
Fairly obvious, but they share the Fourth Amendment protections of the resident, including the home and curtilage.


The Court held that nothing in the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant. Officers must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. Because searching a vehicle parked in the curtilage involved the invasion of the curtilage, officers must show some legal reason to be in the curtilage, i.e. warrant, consent, exigency, or parole or probation terms. Bottom line, the automobile exception does not justify the invasion of the curtilage of a residence to then apply the automobile exception. When you step off the curb or sidewalk into someone’s yard, you need to have a legal justification to begin any search and remember to document your reasons for entry. Good luck. Be safe.


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