Yes, cops still need a warrant to search a car parked in a garage, a nearly-unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. Just one justice, it turned out, thought that letting law enforcement walk up people’s driveways and peer into their cars could be a good idea.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito was the only one on the bench that dissented from the majority’s opinion in Collins v. Virginia, a case which debated whether cops could conduct a warrantless search of a motorcycle parked up a driveway and beside a house. That ruling, Alito wrote, defied logic. Instead, the only question in Alito’s mind was whether the search was “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.
According to Alito, it was.
“An ordinary person of common sense would react to the Court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the
reality of everyday life. If that is the law, he exclaimed, ‘The law is a ass — a idiot,’” Alito wrote. (Mr. Bumble, for those less than familiar with Charles Dickens’ oeuvre, is a character from Oliver Twist.) “The Fourth Amendment is neither an ‘ass’ nor an ‘idiot.’”
The case hinged on an arcane Fourth Amendment concept called the “curtilage,” the legal term for the structures surrounding a house, like a porch or a garage. Traditionally, cops need a warrant to search the curtilage.
“The curtilage is treated as part of the home, and the home is given the most scrupulous protection under the Fourth Amendment,” Tracey Maclin, a professor at Boston University Law, told VICE News in January, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case. “That’s where you barbecue, that’s where you have a pool, that’s where you might sit out sunbathing.”
In 2013, two Virginia cops believed that a man named Ryan Collins had escaped them in two high-speed chases. After they found photos of Collins’ motorcycle posted to social media, one officer headed to his girlfriend’s house. He discovered the motorcycle parked in the back of her house’s driveway, beneath an enclosure, and took off its cover. It was stolen. Collins was later convicted for possessing stolen property.
Collins’ lawyers argued that the cop had no right to search the motorcycle without a warrant, since it was parked inside the curtilage. But Virginia maintained that the search was legal, thanks to a rule called “the automobile exception,” which lets cops search cars without warrants in public or open places. The logic is simple: Because cars can drive off in seconds, and carry potentially crucial evidence with them, forcing police to wait for a warrant before searching vehicles could jeopardize their ability to investigate.
In his dissent, Alito argued that a motorcycle could have put police in that exact situation. “The tarp-covered motorcycle parked in the driveway could have been uncovered and ridden away in a matter of seconds,” he wrote.
For Alito, whether the motorcycle was in the curtilage is irrelevant. All that matters is that the search doesn’t infringe too much on Americans’ privacy — and in this particular case, he believes, it didn’t. “We have not held that the need to cross the curtilage independently necessitates a warrant,” he wrote, “and there is no good reason to apply a different rule here.”
Cover image: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito participates in the opening panel of Georgetown Law Journal's annual symposium, in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)