Automobile exception doesn’t apply to houses: USSC

The Supreme Court of the United States of America recently held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein.

“the automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein”, the Court said.

The Court emphasized that the automobile exception rationales applied only to automobiles and not to houses. Curtilage (the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home) is considered ‘part of the home’ itself for Fourth Amendment purposes, and thus, when an officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a Fourth Amendment search has occurred and is presump­tively unreasonable absent a warrant.

“Because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes’ invasion of the curtilage. Nothing in this Court’s case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant. Such an expansion would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection af­forded to the home and its curtilage and ‘untether’ the exception from the justifications underlying it”, the Court reasoned.

The case arose during the investigation of two traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame. Police learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of the accused. Relying on a facebook post from the accused showing what appeared to be the same motorcycle, police, without a search warrant, walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp from motorcycle, confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen by running the license plate and vehicle identification num­bers, took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, replaced the tarp, and returned to their car to wait for the accused. When the accused re­turned, police arrested him.

The automobile exception allows an officer to search a vehicle without a search warrant as long as the officer has probable cause to believe that evidence or contraband is located in the vehicle.

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