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Supreme Court sets new limits on police searches

Supreme Court sets new limits on police searches
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The Supreme Court on Tuesday limited the scope of police searches, ruling that officers must have a warrant to go through a vehicle parked at a home or on its surrounding property.

In an 8-1 ruling, the court reversed a Virginia Supreme Court decision that found the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception allows for warrantless searches of vehicles anytime, anywhere, including at a home or on its surrounding property, which is known as curtilage.

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The case centers on Ryan Collins, who argued police had violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure when they trespassed on the property of his girlfriend’s house, lifted the tarp that covered a black and orange motorcycle, ran its plates and confirmed it was stolen.

Police had suspected the motorcycle was stolen after Collins twice eluded officers who had tried to pull him over for a traffic infraction and found pictures of the bike parked at the top of a driveway on Collins’s Facebook page.

Citing court precedent in her majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred when a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence.

“Such conduct as this is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant,” she said.

She said the lower court ruling would grant constitutional rights to people with the financial means to afford residences with garages in which to store their vehicles, but deprive people without such resources any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the court's ruling, calling it unreasonable. He argued the officers had probable cause and it's undisputed they could have searched the motorcycle without a warrant if it had been sitting on the curb. He said the court only came to the conclusion that a search warrant was needed because the officer had to walk 30 feet or so up the driveway of the house, which was rented by Collins's girlfriend.

"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. 'If that is the law,' he exclaimed, 'the law is a ass — a idiot,' " Alito said, quoting "Oliver Twist."