The Automobile Exception holds that police may, without a warrant, search an automobile where the police have probable cause to believe that the automobile contains contraband, or fruits, instrumentalities, or evidence of a crime. The Supreme Court’s leading cases on the Automobile Exception all involve parties whose name starts with a “C”: Carroll v. United States, Chambers v. Maroney, Coolidge v. New Hampshire, Cady v. Dombrowski, and California v. Carney. Weird.
An interesting Automobile Exception case is now pending before the Court on a cert petition: weirdly, Collins v. Virginia. It asks whether the Automobile Exception extends to searches of vehicles parked in a private driveway, where no driver or other occupant is immediately present. (SCOTUSBlog’s page is here).
In Collins, according to the Virginia Supreme Court’s description of the facts, the defendant purchased a motorcycle that was orange and black with an extended frame, modified for drag racing. On two occasions, a motorcycle matching this description raced past Albemarle County police and was able to evade the officers who gave chase. Police concluded it was the same motorcycle. Upon investigation, authorities learned that the motorcycle had been sold to Collins, who was told that it was stolen. While investigating Collins in an unrelated matter, police asked Collins about the motorcycle and he denied knowing anything about it. His Facebook page, however, contained photos that appeared to show the motorcycle in question. One of the investigating officers — Officer Rhodes, who had chased the motorcycle in one of the earlier speeding incidents — was convinced that the motorcycle in the photos was the same one that he had chased, but Collins again denied any connection.
After gathering evidence from an informant, the Court explained, Officer Rhodes went to the Charlottesville house that was shown in one of the photos from Collins’s Facebook page. There the officer saw a white tarp covering what he believed was a motorcycle. Looking at what was visible beneath the tarp, Officer Rhodes says he “recognized the distinct chrome accents and ‘stretched out’ shape of the motorcycle.” He walked up the driveway and removed the tarp, finding what he believed to be the motorcycle that had previously eluded him. He recorded the VIN, ran a search, and learned that it was, in fact, stolen.
Collins, who had not been home, soon arrived. Officer Rhodes knocked on the door, Collins answered, and during questioning, Collins admitted that he paid $3500 for the motorcycle and knew it had no title. He was arrested; during the search incident, the motorcycle’s key was recovered from Collins’s pocket. He was prosecuted for receiving stolen property and was convicted.
Collins claims that the search — entering the driveway and removing the tarp — was unconstitutional, absent a warrant, because the Automobile Exception does not extend to vehicles parked in a private residential driveway (it turns out that the home is that of Collins’s girlfriend, but Collins stays in the house several nights a week, according to the cert petition). He claims a split among the federal circuits, though Virginia claims that Collins exaggerates the split (and says it is not a “genuine” split).
In Carney, the Supreme Court articulated two rationales that justify the Automobile Exception. First, vehicles are readily mobile. This ready mobility creates the risk that the automobile may flee and evidence will be lost before a warrant can be obtained. Carney gives a fairly broad reading to the ready mobility rationale, which seemingly applies to any automobile that is operable (like Collins’s motorcycle). The ready mobility rationale, though, has a complex history. In Carroll and Chambers, for example, the cars had been stopped on the highway. And in Carney, the mobile home at issue was searched while parked in a city parking lot. But in Coolidge, the Court — in a plurality opinion only — invalidated the search of a car that was initially found in the defendant’s driveway but then towed to the police station. The Court found it significant that there was some delay in the search and that it was initially found unoccupied on private property.
Coolidge thus lends some tepid support to Collins’s petition. So, too, does language from Carney, which says that the doctrine applies where “a vehicle is being used on the highways, or if it is readily capable of such use and is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes.” (emphasis added).
One potential argument here is that the ready mobility rationale is something of a legal fiction. A car, or motorcycle, may be “readily” mobile with the turn of a key, but the fear of the automobile fleeing, or of evidence becoming elusive, cannot be realized unless a person is there to operate the vehicle. Compare this to the rule from Belton v. New York, which held that a search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment as incident to arrest was automatic with the arrest, even if the arrestee was secured and the vehicle was not actually within his grabbing area (the Court modified that rule in Arizona v. Gant).
One could argue, then, that the ready mobility rationale should apply only where a person is immediately present at the vehicle — such as when stopped on a highway, or when a police meet a person at the car, even on a private driveway — or there is otherwise a reasonable probability that the vehicle could be set in motion. In other words, Collins might argue, a vehicle is not “readily capable” of use on the highways unless someone is present to drive it. But this would likely work some change in the current understanding of ready mobility after Carney. It also would arguably undermine the function of the rationale: the ready mobility of a vehicle in the abstract is enough to justify searching it even if no driver is present, because if the police must wait for a warrant, someone could come along and take the vehicle away before the warrant can be obtained (for example, if Officer Rhodes had to wait for a warrant, Collins could have driven the motorcycle away and disposed of it).
The second rationale for the Automobile Exception is that people have a reduced expectation of privacy in automobiles. Even if a vehicle is not readily mobile, the Court said in Carney, “the lesser expectation of privacy” justifies the Automobile Exception. This would be true even if the vehicle is in a residential driveway, though not in a garage. Perhaps this is why, as the Commonwealth notes in its response, some commentators have interpreted the Carney “regularly-used-for-residential-purposes” language as applying to garages but not to driveways.
Collins’s best argument as to this rationale would seem to be that the expectation of privacy, even if ordinarily diminished, is at least heightened when the vehicle is in a garage or other interior structure associated with the home, or where the vehicle is within the curtilage of the home (including, as Collins argues, the driveway), given the protection afforded to the curtilage in other Fourth Amendment contexts. Still, though, the curtilage is not free from law enforcement observation (see the aeriel surveillance cases, e.g., California v. Ciraolo), nor is it free from law enforcement entry within the scope of an implied license. See Florida v. Jardines. The question is whether law enforcement, even with a license but without a warrant, may enter the curtilage and remove a tarp from a covered automobile for purposes of positively identifying it.
Collins’s battle is likely an uphill one, and there are sound reasons for keeping the Automobile Exception’s reach robust. But the Court has, in recent terms, extended some Fourth Amendment protections. And this case raises enough open questions about the Automobile Exception that the Court could supply some needed clarity by granting cert.
Or, perhaps, the Court might simply like to add another “C” case to its Automobile Exception jurisprudence.