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The Automobile Exception Does Not Apply to Vehicles Within the Curtilage of the Home

In a case that was recently decided by the United States Supreme Court, the issue was whether the police could go onto a suspect’s property and search a vehicle that was in the driveway under a partially enclosed portion of the house, likely something built to provide shade for the vehicle. In this case, the police were searching for a stolen motorcycle. They believed the motorcycle was located at the house in question. When they arrived, they saw what appeared to be a motorcycle under a tarp in the driveway. The police officer walked onto the property, looked under the tarp and ran the tag of the motorcycle.  After determining the motorcycle was stolen, the owner of the house was arrested.

The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the stolen motorcycle because the police officer did not have a legal basis to search it on the defendant’s driveway.  There are a couple of legal principles involved here.  There is something called the motor vehicle exception in search and seizure law. Normally, if the police want to search the property of a person, the police have to get consent or a search warrant.  However, automobiles are different for two reasons.  One, there is less of a reasonable expectation of privacy in an automobile because they are driven around and parked in public, and people can generally see inside of them through the windows.  Two, automobiles are easier to move from one place to another making it easier to dispose of evidence inside.  As a result, the automobile exception allows a police officer to search an automobile without a search warrant if the police officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle.

A competing issue in this case is the idea that people have a strong expectation of privacy in their homes and the immediate area surrounding their homes, i.e. the curtilage. The curtilage is generally defined as the immediate area surrounding the home along with a porch and any enclosed areas near the home.  This would also seem to apply to property that is enclosed by a fence that is clearly not open to the general public.  The police may not go into these areas to search without consent or a search warrant.

The question in this case is whether they can go onto the curtilage of a home to take advantage of the automobile exception. The lower courts said yes, but the Supreme Court said no. Essentially, the Supreme Court said the right to privacy in and around one’s home outweighs the interests that allow the automobile exception.

As a result, it’s pretty clear the police cannot go into a garage and search a vehicle without a search warrant. This case indicates they cannot go onto a driveway and search a vehicle under an overhang attached to the house.  If the vehicle was parked on the street in front of the house, the police probably could avail themselves of the automobile exception.  What if the vehicle was parked on the driveway but not in or under any type of structure?  The answer to that is not so clear.