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New Development Regarding Police Searches of Residential Driveways

   Published on:  04 Jun, 2018

On May 29, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision limiting police searches of residential driveways. We believe that this could significantly affect police officers’ ability to patrol neighborhoods and investigate crimes related to vehicles. (See May 29, 2018 article in The New York Times.)

— Past Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Fourth Amendment have generally allowed police officers to access a home’s driveway in search of stolen vehicles. Such searches fell under the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, which is predicated on vehicles’ “ready mobility” and the extensive regulation to which they are subject.

— As of last week, however, in Collins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that the expectation of privacy in one’s home outweighs the concerns addressed by the automobile exception; in other words, a home’s “curtilage,” which is deemed to be part of a home for Fourth Amendment purposes and is thus protected by the warrant requirement, shall now include driveways. Therefore, police officers will need to obtain a warrant before entering a residential driveway to search vehicles.

— This Supreme Court decision rejects any distinction between enclosed structures like garages and open driveways. Both should be subject to the warrant requirement. Justice Sotomayor, writing for the Court’s majority, explained that if the Court were to recognize such a distinction, it would favor those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages over those who do not.

— The Supreme Court also made no exception in cases where the subject vehicle was parked close to the street, but still on a driveway. They too are subject to the warrant requirement.

— As the lone dissenter, Justice Alito argued that the issue of whether the driveway is curtilage or not is trivial because the motorcycle (which the police suspected to be stolen) was within plain view. Consequently, there was reasonable cause for the officer to examine the vehicle. We will have to assess whether this decision will affect search and seizure law regarding plain view down the road.

Takeaway: police officers should first obtain a warrant prior to searching vehicles that are located on home driveways. However, traditional exceptions to the warrant requirement beyond the automobile exception, e.g., exigent circumstances, will likely apply with respect to driveway searches.

If you have any questions about this alert, please contact Matthew Taylor at 415.266.1812 or matthew@majlabor.com.