Supreme Court Backs Privacy Rights in Motorcycle Search Case

(Bloomberg) -- A police officer might have violated the Constitution by walking onto a man’s driveway to inspect a motorcycle suspected of being stolen, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

The justices, voting 8-1, reinforced the protections for the areas around a person’s home, saying officers generally must steer clear unless they have a warrant or are invited onto the property. The majority said Monday those restrictions apply even when the target of the search is a vehicle that could easily be moved.

Writing for the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the motorcycle search was an "invasion of the sanctity" of the area around the house.

The ruling is a victory for Ryan Austin Collins, who was seeking to overturn his conviction for receiving stolen property. The high court left open the possibility that his conviction could be upheld on other grounds.

Police in Albemarle County, Virginia, began searching for the distinctive motorcycle, an orange and black bike with an extended frame, months before the September 2013 search took place. A bike matching that description had eluded officers earlier in two separate incidents, once racing away at an estimated 140 miles per hour.

Officer David Rhodes later uncovered information suggesting that the bike was stolen and was parked in the driveway of the house where Collins often stayed with his girlfriend.

Rhodes went to the house and saw the motorcycle in the driveway under a tarp. He took off the cover to check the license plate and vehicle-identification number, which confirmed the bike was the stolen vehicle. Rhodes then went to the door to speak with Collins, who admitted he had bought the motorcycle.

The Virginia Supreme Court upheld Collins’s conviction, pointing to U.S. Supreme Court cases that created an "automobile exception" to the Fourth Amendment.

Sotomayor said the automobile exception doesn’t apply when the vehicle is parked in the "curtilage" around a home.

The automobile exception "does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage," Sotomayor wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

"The tarp-covered motorcycle parked in the driveway could have been uncovered and ridden away in a matter of seconds," he wrote. "And Officer Rhodes’s brief walk up the driveway impaired no real privacy interests."

The case is Collins v. Virginia, 16-1027.

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