Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception does not permit a police officer who lacks a warrant or an invitation to enter a home’s curtilage to search a parked vehicle, evidence seized under those circumstances in this case is admissible under the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.
After Collins unsuccessfully moved to suppress evidence obtained from a warrantless search of a motorcycle parked on private property, he was convicted of receiving stolen property. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that exigent circumstances justified the search. This court affirmed on a different basis, holding that the automobile exception justified the search. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.
The Court held, “‘This case presents the question whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein. It does not.’ …
“The Court limited its holding to the interplay between the automobile exception and the curtilage doctrine. ‘We leave for resolution on remand,’ the Court stated, ‘whether Officer Rhodes’ warrantless intrusion on the curtilage of Collins’ house may have been reasonable on a different basis, such as the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.’”
Ruling and discussion
On remand, the Commonwealth argues that the evidence is admissible under two exceptions to the exclusionary rule: exigent circumstances and good faith.
“In our opinion, the exclusionary rule does not apply in this case even if no exigent circumstances existed because, at the time of the search, a reasonably well-trained officer would not have known that the search of the motorcycle, located a few feet across the curtilage boundary of a private driveway, was unconstitutional.
“In this case, the good faith inquiry raises two initial questions: What was the state of the law governing Officer Rhodes’s search at the time that he conducted it, and what factual circumstances provided either clarity or ambiguity to Officer Rhodes in his presumed reliance upon that law? The issue, however, is not whether the automobile exception is categorically inapplicable to a portion of a private driveway within the curtilage absent some other legal basis for the police being there.
“The United States Supreme Court conclusively settled that issue in this case. Instead, we examine the state of the law at the time of the search and ask only the ‘objectively ascertainable question whether a reasonably well trained officer would have known that the search was illegal’ in light of ‘all of the circumstances.’”
In Scher v. United States, 305 U.S. 251 (1938), police, without a warrant, searched a vehicle parked in a detached garage within a residence’s curtilage. The Court held that “the automobile exception had followed the vehicle into the curtilage” and that “[p]assage of the car into the open garage closely followed by the observing officer did not destroy this right” to search the vehicle without a warrant and make an arrest.
“No precedent, until the United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling in this case [Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (2018)], expressly disclaimed the view that Scher had applied the automobile exception to a vehicle parked within the curtilage of a home.”
In Collins, the Court indicated that Scher was best understood as an application of the warrant requirement’s hot pursuit exception. But when Rhodes conducted the search in this case, he could not have known that and instead could have reasonably concluded that Sher authorized the search in this case. This is especially so because in Sher, the searched vehicle was parked in a garage and this case, the vehicle was parked on a private driveway that was completely within public view.
Collins v. Commonwealth. (Kelsey) (McClanahan, concurring) (Mims, dissenting) Record No. 151277 (On Remand from the United States Supreme Court) March 28, 2019; Charles Lawrence Weber Jr., Matthew Allen Fitzgerald, Brian David Schmalzbach, Travis Cory Gunn for Appellant; Michael Thomas Judge, Mark Rankin Herring, Victoria Nathalie Pearson, Christopher Paul Schandevel, Toby Jay Heytens, Matthew Robert McGuire for Appellee. VLW 019-6-020, 38 pp.