Police Need a Search Warrant to Search an Automobile in Your Driveway

In Collins v. Virginia, last week the U.S. Supreme Court held that an officer must get a search warrant before coming onto a person’s property to inspect a vehicle that is parked, in the home’s curtilage, beneath a tarp.

Two officers at separate times saw what was likely a stolen motorcycle speeding but couldn’t catch the driver. After some investigation, they discovered that Collins was the driver and that Collins’ Facebook page had photos of the motorcycle parked in his driveway.

One of the officers went to Collins’ house (his girlfriend’s house where he stayed a few nights a week), saw what appeared to be the motorcycle concealed by a tarp in his driveway, walked up the driveway, and removed the tarp to check the license plate and take a photo of the motorcycle.

Collins was then arrested and later convicted of possession of stolen property.

What is the Automobile Exception to the Fourth Amendment?

A police officer ordinarily does not have to get a search warrant before searching a car, or any vehicle that is mobile – this is called the “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement.

Basically, because automobiles are mobile – they can simply drive off – there is an obvious danger that evidence could be destroyed, or a suspect could escape, in the time that it would take for an officer to get a search warrant from a judge.

But, does the automobile exception permit a police officer to walk onto someone’s property and inspect a vehicle that is parked within the “curtilage” of the property?

The Supreme Court says no – the officer must get a warrant before invading the privacy of a person’s home, including the curtilage, unless another exception to the warrant requirement applies.

What is Curtilage?

The search of a vehicle that is parked within the curtilage of a home implicates the Fourth Amendment twice:

  1. Can the officer search the property (the motorcycle in this case) without a warrant?
  2. Can the officer enter and search the curtilage of the property without a warrant?

The curtilage consists of the area immediately surrounding a person’s home where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy – it usually includes porches, driveways, garages, and other “private” areas.

A driveway just outside of a home is a part of the home’s curtilage and cannot be searched without a warrant based on probable cause unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies – the Supreme Court’s holding, in this case, is that the automobile exception is not a valid exception that would allow an officer to search the curtilage of a home without a warrant.

Criminal Defense in Charleston, SC

If you’ve been charged with a crime based on evidence obtained with or without a search warrant, you may have defenses based on Fourth Amendment violations – was the search warrant valid and did it comply with SC law? If there was no warrant, was there a valid exception to the warrant requirement or was the officer just cutting corners?

Charleston defense lawyer Grant B. Smaldone has years of experience defending criminal charges and challenging illegal searches – call now at (843) 808-2100 or use the contact form on our website to set up a free consultation to discuss your defense.