In a rare occurrence, the United States Supreme Court put some teeth back into the Fourth Amendment this week.
All but one of the justices agreed Tuesday that police in Virginia went too far when they walked up a driveway, lifted a tarp and took photos of a motorcycle they suspected was stolen. That evidence led to the arrest and conviction of Ryan Collins.
Lower courts previously upheld the conviction, agreeing with state’s application of the automobile exception, which allows warrantless searches on public roadways if officers see evidence of a crime “in plain sight,” or have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime is being committed.
However, (most of) the court disagreed, saying that Fourth Amendment protections extend to a vehicle in a carport or adjacent to a home.
“We conclude that 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,” wrote Justice Sonya Sotomayor.
The lone dissenter in the case was Justice Samuel Alito, who believed the search was reasonable because the vehicle was “in plain view in a driveway just a few feet from the street.”
The Fourth Amendment states: “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.”
We agree with the court that if police believed the motorcycle to be stolen, all they had to do was apply for a search warrant. Their actions, if performed by anyone without a badge, would have constituted trespassing.
The case represents a recent upswing of defending Fourth Amendment protections rather than destroying them, most of which has been perpetrated because of the “War on Drugs.” In 2013, the court ruled that drug-sniffing dogs couldn’t be brought onto a porch without a warrant.
The court hasn’t always been so Fourth-Amendment friendly.
In Kentucky v. King, the 8-1 decision went the other way, upholding a warrantless search because police thought someone they were chasing on foot had run into an apartment and was trying to destroy evidence.
Instead, they found Hollis King and a few others smoking marijuana.
In that case, the lone voice in the wilderness was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“The Court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases,” she opined in the opening of her dissent. “In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.”
The Constitution and Bill of Rights were written to restrict the government and as a promise to protect the rights of the individual.
Law enforcement officers, court officials and politicians take an oath to uphold the Constitution, yet some seem to seek exceptions to the rule. And in many cases, the court has wrongfully sided with the state and perpetuated a culture that gives government more power.
We hope that Collins v. Virginia signals a return to a Supreme Court that respects the Constitution and the rights it guarantees.