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Police Can't Search Car in Driveway Without Warrant

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Most of us are familiar enough with the general warrant requirement. From seeing cops on TV bang on a front door yelling, "Open up, we have a warrant," to Jay-Z advising officers, somewhat incorrectly, "Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back, And I know my rights so you go'n need a warrant for that," pop culture is rife with warrant references and "common" knowledge.

But very few of us are really knowledgeable about specific warrant requirements. For instance, police almost always need a valid warrant to enter a home, but very rarely need a warrant to search a car on the road. So what about a car parked at home? The Supreme Court, not so succinctly, said cops go'n need a warrant for that.

Warrant Requirements

In Collins v. Virginia, police searching for an orange and black motorcycle involved in several traffic incidents believed that tracked the vehicle to Ryan Collins via Facebook posts. Officers saw what appeared to be a similar vehicle covered by a tarp in Collins's driveway, and, without a warrant, lifted the tarp, ran the vehicle identification number, discovered the bike was stolen, and arrested Collins.

As a general rule, citizens maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy both in their homes and in the "curtilage" immediately surrounding their homes, and Collins claimed officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they trespassed on to conduct a search without a warrant, and the Supreme Court agreed.

Auto Exceptions

There are a few exceptions to the warrant requirement, and automobile searches are one of those. Police are allowed to conduct "plain view" searches of any vehicle on the road, and need only probable cause that the vehicle contains contraband in order to search the entire car.

However, "Expanding the scope of the automobile exception" to vehicles parked in driveways, according to the Court "would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage, and 'untether' the exception 'from the justifications underlying' it." Writing for the 8-1 majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained:

"Because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes' invasion of the curtilage. Nothing in this Court's case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant."

So while Collins might still have 99 problems, a conviction based on an illegal search of his driveway ain't one.

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