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Supreme Court Resolves Fourth Amendment Battling Precedent

Mark Mandell, Esq.

Recently the Supreme Court has been a strong defender of the Fourth Amendment's privacy protections regarding unreasonable searches and seizures. Several years ago, the high court ruled that police must obtain a warrant in order to search outside a private home. However, the Fourth Amendment generally exempts automobiles from warrant policies because they can quickly flee.

In Collins v. Virginia, a motorcycle that was suspected to have been used to flee from police years prior was covered by a tarp on private property. After police came to the conclusion that it was the same motorcycle, the owner was arrested. Precedent indicates that a warrant must be obtained to search outside a private home, but the Fourth Amendment provides that automobiles are generally exempt from warrant policies. The Court sought to clear up these competing issues.

In an 8-1 decision, the Court held the "Fourth Amendment's automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein." The majority opinion was written by Justice Sotomayor, with only Justice Alito dissenting. Alito opined that as long as the search isn't unreasonable or a significant breach of privacy, the exemption should apply. The majority wrote that "the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself." In other words, in Collins the automobile was part of the homeowner's private property, and therefore no longer possessed a warrant exception.

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