[USA TODAY, author: Richard Wolf]
The Supreme Court ruled Today [May 29, 2018] that police generally cannot enter private property to search a motor vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.
The 8-1 decision overruling three lower courts was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, calling a Virginia police officer's actions reasonable when he walked up a private driveway to confirm that a motorcycle had been stolen.
Ryan Collins was arrested for possessing the stolen motorcycle, which had outrun Virginia police twice in 2013. The high court ruled that same year that police need a warrant to search outside a private home, but automobiles are exempt if a crime is suspected. In Collins' case, the two precedents collided.
"The automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein," Sotomayor ruled.
During oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts said motor vehicles don't get the same privacy rights as houses because they can be driven away at a moment's notice. To make his point, he cited the famous race car from the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off — mistakenly recalling it as a Porsche when in fact it was a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spider.
But Roberts joined Sotomayor's opinion Tuesday, leaving only Alito in dissent.
"An ordinary person of common sense would react to the court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life," Alito said, quoting Charles Dickens. "If that is the law, he exclaimed, 'the law is a ass — a idiot.'"
The Supreme Court in recent years has been a firm defender of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. It has held that police cannot use GPS equipment to track vehicles or search cellphones without a warrant. Earlier this term in a pending case, the justices voiced concerns about government monitoring of suspects by tracking the location of the cellphones.
VACDL Member Buddy Weber of Charlottesville was counsel for Collins