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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Asks Supreme Court to Stop Police from Carrying out Warrantless Searches of Vehicles Parked on Private Residential Property

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Warning against the continuing encroachment of law enforcement on the security and privacy of the homes of citizens, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit police from entering private residential property and approaching a home, uninvited and without a warrant, in order to search a vehicle parked a few feet from the house.

In filing an amicus brief in Collins v. Commonwealth, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment, which allows police to search for contraband goods “concealed and illegally transported in an automobile or other vehicle,” should not be extended to cases where the vehicle is within the constitutionally-protected areas of a home. In weighing in on the case, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue against such a dangerous expansion of the “automobile exception,” which would effectively sanction law enforcement to cross constitutionally protected thresholds without a warrant and simply cite the automobile exception as justification for their conduct.

Attorneys Anand Agneshwar and Paige Hester Sharpe of Arnold & Porter Kay Scholer LLP assisted The Rutherford Institute in presenting the amicus curiae brief in Collins v. Commonwealth.

“The ‘automobile exception’ arose out of the Prohibition era in order to crack down on bootleggers who were using vehicles to smuggle liquor,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Yet even with this exception on the books, police cannot merely disregard the Fourth Amendment whenever it suits their purposes. As the Supreme Court itself has recognized, ‘Illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing in that way, namely, by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure.’”

The case arose after Virginia police entered residential property without permission and without a warrant, lifted the cover off a motorcycle and inspected identification numbers on the vehicle in order to determine whether the motorcycle had been stolen. Albemarle County police had been looking for the operator of a motorcycle involved in two separate high-speed incidents. Although the driver’s face was obscured by a helmet, police suspected Ryan Collins. Police confronted Collins at the Department of Motor Vehicles and questioned him. Collins denied any knowledge of the motorcycle.

Relying on a photo posted on Collins’ Facebook page of a motorcycle parked in front of a house, police determined that the house in the picture belonged to Collins’ girlfriend, where Collins often stayed overnight. Upon visiting the house, police saw a white tarp covering what appeared to be a motorcycle, along with a car, both of which were parked within a patio next to the house. Without any invitation, permission or warrant, police walked onto the private driveway, crossed over to the patio and lifted the tarp, revealing the motorcycle, its license plate and its Vehicle Identification Number. Using this information, police determined that the motorcycle was stolen and waited on a side street, monitoring the house.  When Collins returned to the house, police arrested and charged him with receiving stolen property.

At trial, Collins argued that the officer had performed a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment by trespassing onto private property and looking under the tarp. Virginia courts rejected Collins’ arguments, ruling that the search fell within the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception. Rutherford Institute attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit such an expansion of the automobile exception.


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