The curious case of how a police officer lifting a motorcycle cover is about to break the USA’s 4th amendment

Should Police be allowed to search your motorcycle on private property if it’s under cover?

In essence, a motorcyclist causing issues on public roads was tracked down to a local property, where a police officer had to lift up a bike cover in order to confirm that this was, indeed, the very same motorcycle being used in the alleged incidents.

But should the Police officer have been allowed to peek under the tarpaulin?

Strap in for a long, meandering journey through the US legal system…

The Supreme Court this May or June will decide the case of motorcyclist Ryan Austin Collins Vs. Commonwealth of Virginia.  This case has few real ramifications for motorcyclists who cover their motorcycle to protect it from prying eyes, weather or sun.

However, this case could be a scratch upon Americans’ ever-eroding 4th Amendment protections from illegal searches and seizures preformed by the police.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:


The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The question presented to the Supreme Court for its ruling is:

Does the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception permit a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter private property, approach a home, and search a vehicle parked a few feet from the house?

Here’s the back story:

Mr. Ryan Austin Collins, on two separate occasions and on a very speedy motorcycle, allegedly did a runner from the same police officer. Getting a tip that it might be Mr. Collins on the motorcycle, and that said motorcycle might be stolen (probable cause), the officer monitored Mr. Collins’ girlfriend’s public social media account and found a picture showing a motorcycle, which was a close match to the bike that eluded the officer.

The officer then staked out the girlfriend’s home, where Mr. Collins was also a resident for a majority of the week (his primary residence). The officer walked up to the front door and knocked; no one answered. The motorcycle was not visible from the front door of the home or the road. The officer then left the porch and path to the front door and proceeded, without consent or a warrant, around the side of the house. He found a car in the driveway in front of a three-sided alcove, which contained a covered motorcycle.

This case hinges on two principles:

Curtilage is the immediate space outside the home, usually enclosed, encompassing the grounds and other structures used in daily domestic life activities.

The Auto Exemption ruling allows the police to search a car on the open highway without a warrant, if they have probable cause.

The Plaintiff’s contention is that searching the curtilage requires the same warrant as searching the home and the Auto Exemption should not take precedent.

The following statements illuminate the court’s previous rulings on similar cases:

“[W] hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013). “At the very core stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505, 511 (1961).

And From English Common Law:
“So particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man’s house, that it stiles as his castle, and will never suffer it to be violated with impunity.” 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 223 (1769 ed.).

That castle doctrine not only protected property, but also stood as a bulwark for all individuals against arbitrary governmental power. As William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham stated, “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter.”

Lastly and most importantly:
As in the Coolidge plurality warned, “the word ‘automobile’ is not a talisman in whose presence the Fourth Amendment fades away and disappears.” 403 U.S. at 461.

So what does all this mean?

At a time when warrants are available with unprecedented efficiency, there is no legitimate law enforcement need for a categorical automobile exception on private property or within the home and its curtilage. i.e. when in doubt, get a warrant if the auto is close to a house on private property.


The officer certainly had no invitation to strip off the motorcycle’s cover

The officer’s search of Collins’ motorcycle thus violated the Fourth Amendment. The motorcycle was parked on private property and was covered within a few feet of the house, on a concrete slab in an alcove. This is classic curtilage and should have been apparent to the officer.

To reach the motorcycle, the officer had to veer off the customary invited path to the front door (trespassing).

The officer certainly had no invitation to strip off the motorcycle’s cover or to run the VIN number to investigate its legal status further. The officer also violated Collins’ reasonable expectations of privacy in that location.

The officer thought wrongly that the “auto exemption” and the possibility of stolen property were justification enough to poke around the curtilage (home) looking for evidence of a crime.

The Plaintiff (Mr. Collins) should win this case, however with the appointment Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, a new conservative Justice with authoritarian leanings, Mr. Collins will likely lose 5-4.

As will the USA’s expectation of privacy anywhere, especially the home.

Source: The Drive

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