Ryan Collins already was on the radar of Albemarle police in 2013 after he eluded officers on two separate occasions on a flashy orange and black motorcycle. Five years later on May 29, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his argument 8-1 that police needed a warrant to search for the bike outside his girlfriend’s house in what legal experts are calling a big win for the Fourth Amendment.
The county cops suspected the bike that got away from them was stolen, and when Officer David Rhodes saw a photo of a similar motorcycle on Collins’ Facebook page, he tracked it down to a house where Collins’ girlfriend lived, according to court documents.
Rhodes could see a tarp covering what appeared to be a motorcycle next to the house, walked up the driveway “to investigate further,” says the court opinion, and removed the tarp. The license plate number showed the bike was stolen, and when Collins returned to the house, he told Rhodes the bike was his and he’d bought it without a title. Rhodes arrested him and Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property in May 2014.
Collins argued that Rhodes needed a warrant to enter the house’s curtilage—the area immediately around a house that’s also protected by the Fourth Amendment—but the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of Virginia upheld the warrantless search under the “automobile exception,” which gives police greater leeway to search vehicles on public streets.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—and seven other justices—did not agree. “The question before the court is whether the automobile exception justifies the invasion of the curtilage. The answer is no,” she writes in the court’s decision.
Allowing police to use the automobile exception to conduct warrantless searches “would render hollow the core Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage,” she says. “Indeed, its name alone should make all this clear enough: It is, after all, an exception for automobiles.”
Collins’ attorney, McGuireWoods’ Matthew Fitzgerald, UVA law class of ’08, has been described as a rising star in the rare air of Supreme Court litigation. He calls the court’s favorable ruling “excellent,” but says Collins’ legal battle isn’t over.
“The state has the opportunity to argue another exemption applies—the exigent exemption,” he says. The Supreme Court corrected the Supreme Court of Virginia in that the automobile exemption does not apply, he says, but the state is “entitled to argue” that it was an emergency that Rhodes conduct a warrantless search.
Police were looking for the bike because Collins had eluded them, not because the bike was stolen, says Fitzgerald, and it was easier to pursue the receipt of stolen goods charge because “it’s difficult to prove who was driving it months earlier.” Collins, who is in his early 30s, served several months in jail, says his attorney.
“If police had been doing things right, they would have gotten a warrant,” says Fitzgerald.
Albemarle County Police Chief Ron Lantz declined to comment on the SCOTUS ruling.
The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in the case focusing on the sanctity of curtilage, and its founder, John Whitehead, applauds the ruling. He says it makes clear that police should stay off driveways and lawns unless they have a warrant. “If not, nothing in your yard is safe,” he says.
Supreme Court decision in Collins v. Virginia courtesy Rutherford Institute