WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police generally cannot enter private property to search a motor vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.
The 8-1 decision overruling three lower courts was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, calling a Virginia police officer's actions reasonable when he walked up a private driveway to confirm that a motorcycle had been stolen.
The stolen motorcycle had outrun two different police officers from the same Virginia department in 2013. So when Officer David Rhodes examined what he suspected was the same motorcycle under a tarp in a driveway, he waited patiently for Ryan Collins to come home, then placed him under arrest.
The high court ruled that same year that police need a warrant to search outside a private home. But automobiles are exempt from most Fourth Amendment privacy protections if a crime is suspected, because they can be moved quickly and are highly regulated. In Collins' case, those two precedents collided.
Sotomayor and seven colleagues resolved the collision in favor of privacy.
"The automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein," Sotomayor ruled. "The scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself."
During oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts said motor vehicles don't get the same privacy rights as houses because they can be driven away at a moment's notice. To make his point, he cited the famous race car from the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off — mistakenly recalling it as a Porsche when in fact it was a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spider.
But Roberts joined Sotomayor's opinion Tuesday, leaving only Alito in dissent. Alito said the vehicle exception should apply as long as the search isn't unreasonable or a significant breach of privacy.
"An ordinary person of common sense would react to the court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life," Alito said, quoting a Charles Dickens character: "If that is the law, he exclaimed, 'the law is a ass — a idiot.'"
Judge Clarence Thomas joined the majority's conclusion but expressed concern about the potential result -- that evidence against Collins would be excluded at trial. He said the court may lack the authority to impose the federal exclusionary rule on states.
The Supreme Court in recent years has been a firm defender of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. It has held that police cannot use GPS equipment to track vehicles or search cellphones without a warrant.
Earlier this term in a pending case, the justices voiced concerns about government monitoring of suspects by tracking the location of their cellphones.
And on the same day that they heard Collins' case, they also considered a privacy challenge from a driver found with 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk of a car rented under someone else's name. The justices ruled that his privacy was invaded as well.