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Collins v Virginia Supreme Court Case Important Protection for 4th Amendment
I like to share the text of the 4th Amendment whenever I get the chance. It serves as a reminder of the limitations of government and the right of the people in relation to their property. It reads simply:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
To me the language is clear and easy to comprehend. The government or their agents (the police) do not have a right to take your stuff or search through it unless it has to do with evidence in a crime you have committed. Even then they must have probable cause that a crime was committed and that you were the person who committed it AND that there is likely to be evidence found AND what kind of evidence it might be AND just where they intend on looking for it then that has to be presented to a judge who – if he or she agrees with the statement of probable cause – issues a search warrant. Police can then search but must stick with the particulars of the warrant. For example, if they are looking for a stolen bicycle they are not permitted to look in your dresser drawer because it is not likely a bicycle would be found in there. If they do look in the draw and find evidence of another crime (such as drugs) that evidence would be thrown out in court. If they state in the warrant “the house at” but fail to include the “yard” or the “shed” they cannot search there. Warrants must be issued with specificity. That’s a good thing. A recent case that the Supreme Court decided had to do with searching the curtilage of a home.
The word “curtilage” isn’t a common one. It is defined as “an area of land attached to a house and forming one enclosure with it.” which still doesn’t really tell us much. Legally speaking it can be defined differently by statute in different states. The easiest way to think of it is the area around your house. If you didn’t have a fence your yard would be thought of as curtilage. Your driveway is. Your porch is, etc. We all know that fences mean keep out and doors mean keep out but in terms of 4th amendment searches it’s been a gray area if the driveway meant anything or the side of the house that wasn’t fenced in. The Supreme Court has ruled that it does require a warrant for police to go poking around. There are stipulations of course. If you have something illegal right in your driveway, that’s in plain sight, that’s not what this is about.
In the case (COLLINS v. VIRGINIA ) the police officers walked onto the property and examined (e.g. searched) a motorcycle that was under a tarp. It wasn’t behind a fence but the court ruled that didn’t mean police had a right to search it without a warrant.
It was almost a unanimous ruling as well with only Alito saying the police had a right. He said, “The Fourth Amendment prohibits ‘unreasonable’ searches. What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable. The Court’s decision is not.” I disagree with him entirely. The rest of the court ruled correctly on this, he did not. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when it comes to citizens’ rights the court should err on the side of caution and protection of those rights. Secondly, a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy on their property (including curtilage) and in their property (the motorcycle). Good for the court on this one and as for Alito, I don’t know what he was thinking. Well, I do know but he’s wrong.
There is a rule that allows police to search a vehicle on a public street under certain circumstances. Alito claimed that this rule should apply to a vehicle in a driveway as well (that being curtilage). Sotomayor who wrote the majority opinion was pretty harsh in her criticism of his thinking. She wrote, “An ordinary person of common sense however, clearly would understand that the privacy interests at stake in one’s private residential property are far greater than on a public street.” That’s what makes Alito’s opinion so shocking to me, it’s just common sense that your property, even if not bordered by walls, is different from a public street, park, or other public location. Of course it is and it’s ridiculous for Alito to try to claim otherwise. It’s not quite as dumb as the Obamacare ruling but darn close. Luckily in this case there was no tie to break and the rest of the justices stomped on Alito.