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A “vehicle” for ending circuit splits

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in two cases to settle a split of authority concerning the warrantless search of automobiles.

Photo: Police State USA, (Courtesy of Google Images)

Eleven cases were added to the 2017 docket of the Supreme Court of the United States on Thursday, September 28. Among those cases are two that deal with the same area of the law: the Fourth Amendment and automobile searches. The decisions of the nine justices concerning Collins v. Virginia and Byrd v. United States could potentially alter the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to citizens and the contents of their cars.

There currently exists a circuit split on the issue of whether the automobile exception applies to a defendant’s private, residential property, thus requiring a search warrant.

The issue presented to the Court in Collins v. Virginia is whether the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter private property in order to search a vehicle parked a few feet from the house. As acknowledged in Collins’s petition for certiorari, there currently exists a circuit split on the issue. The Fifth Circuit, Tenth Circuit, as well as the states of Georgia and Illinois, have decided that the automobile exception does not apply to the defendant’s private, residential property, and thus require a search warrant for such searches. The Seventh Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Alabama fall on the other side of the argument and do not require search warrants for these types of searches. Collins v. Virginia arises out of the Fourth Circuit, which has not yet come to a judicial determination on the specific issue.

The facts of Collins v. Virginia are as follows: officers of the Albemarle County Police Department in Charlottesville, Virginia were on the lookout for a “person who eluded them on a motorcycle in two high-speed incidents.” Officers suspected Ryan Collins, the petitioner, to be the man on the motorcycle. When they encountered Collins a few months later at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the officers asked Collins about a picture they saw on his Facebook page showing a motorcycle covered by a tarp and parked outside of a house. Collins denied any knowledge of the motorcycle.

Following the encounter at the DMV, the officers located the house in the picture on Collins’s Facebook page. The house belonged to Collins’s girlfriend—the mother of his child—and Collins lived there several nights a week. The driveway ran from the street to the left side of the house and was enclosed on three sides by the house and two brick retaining walls. Sitting about halfway up the driveway, parallel to the front door, and only a car length away from the house, sat a motorcycle covered by a tarp.

After seeing the covered motorcycle, one of the officers walked into the enclosed driveway area beside the house, removed the tarp, and recorded the license plate and VIN number of the motorcycle. Once the officers ran the information obtained by the search through their systems, they discovered that the motorcycle was reported as stolen. Upon discovering this information, the officers walked up to the house and knocked on the door. Collins answered the door and admitted to owning the motorcycle. Collins was then arrested for possession of stolen goods.

“The automobile exception has two premises—inherent mobility and a reduced expectation of privacy…The second of these premises is absent in the curtilage of the home.”

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution secures that “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.” As a general rule, absent consent, searches without a warrant are per se unreasonable and thus violate the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court has made an exception to the warrant requirement for automobiles. Having first recognized this exception in 1925 in Carroll v. United States, the Court more recently presented the rule in Maryland v. Dyson that if a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment permits police to search the vehicle without more. As mentioned above, circuits are split on the issue of whether the exception extends to a car parked at the defendant’s private residence.

In arguing against the warrantless search, counsel for Collins relies on a long history of Supreme Court decisions that recognize an inherent heightened privacy interest and constitutional protection of the home and property within its curtilage. Collins’s attorney argues the automobile exception should only apply to vehicles on public roadways. In his petition for certiorari, Collins’s attorney states, “The automobile exception has two premises—inherent mobility and a reduced expectation of privacy. … The second of these premises is absent in the curtilage of the home.”

[T]here also exists a circuit split on the issue of whether the automobile exception applies to a driver of a rental vehicle not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement.

The other case accepted for review by the Supreme Court also presents an automobile search issue. The question in Byrd v. United States is “[w]hether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when he has the renter’s permission to drive the car but is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement.” As was the case in Collins, there exists a circuit split on the issue in Byrd. “The Eighth and Ninth Circuit and four state high courts hold that a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car if he has the renter’s permission to drive the car.” Alternatively, the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits, as well as two state high courts hold that such a driver does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car.

The incident in Byrd v. United States occurred in Pennsylvania. State Troopers pulled over Terrence Byrd for a traffic violation “while he was driving a car that his girlfriend had rented for him.” Upon stopping the vehicle and noticing it was a rental car, officers asked Byrd for his license and rental agreement. After inspecting the rental agreement, the officers noted Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver of the vehicle.

Following some confusion and difficulty with some potential warrants in Byrd’s name (that did not lead to his arrest), officers asked Byrd to exit his vehicle (a demand authorized by the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania v. Mimms). Officers then asked Byrd whether he had anything illegal in the car and requested his consent to search, “noting that they did not actually need his consent because he was not listed on the rental agreement.” The fact is contested as to whether Byrd subsequently gave consent. Regardless, officers conducted a full search of the vehicle and found heroin and body armor in the trunk.

Fourth Amendment jurisprudence provides the rule that law enforcement officers do not violate a particular defendant’s rights against unreasonable search and seizure if that defendant does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area searched. The reasonable expectation of privacy test for the necessity of a search warrant was announced in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Katz v. United States. Unlike the search of the motorcycle in Collins, there was no probable cause to believe that evidence related to the crime (a traffic offense) was located in the rental car driven by Byrd. Furthermore, the “search incident to lawful arrest” exception, as applied to cars in Arizona v. Gant, also does not apply in Byrd’s case because no lawful arrest was made.

Thus, the determinative issues for the Supreme Court to consider will be whether Byrd did consent to the search and, if not, whether he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car, even though his name was not listed on the rental agreement. If Byrd did not consent and does have a reasonable expectation of privacy, then the warrantless search of the rental vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

[A] determination that Byrd did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy would “contravene[] this Court’s teaching that a person who legally obtains ‘dominion’ and ‘control’ over an area … has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area.”

In arguing for suppression of the evidence found in the car Byrd was driving, his attorney depends on Supreme Court precedence, citing cases such as Rakas v. Illinois, to contend that a determination that Byrd did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy would “contravene[] this Court’s teaching that a person who legally obtains ‘dominion’ and ‘control’ over an area … has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area.” In his petition for certiorari, Byrd’s attorney suggested to the Supreme Court that this case “is an ideal vehicle for answering the question presented and resolving the [split of authority],” stressing the need for a “single, coherent answer” in order to eliminate “confusion among the lower courts in an area with serious implications for criminal defendants … and for the even-handed administration of justice.”

In both of these cases, a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court could reverse the convictions of Ryan Collins and Terence Byrd. A violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights results in the exclusion of the evidence obtained through the illegal search. If the search in Collins is found to be unconstitutional, the government will not be able to present the motorcycle, tag number, VIN number, or any information received from those numbers at a new trial. Likewise, if the search in Byrd is found to be unconstitutional, the government will be not able to present the heroin as evidence in a new trial. The exclusion of such evidence would seriously obstruct the prosecution’s efforts to secure a conviction against either man. At this point, neither of the two cases has been set for oral argument. If history is to inform projections of how these cases may turn out, one thing is for certain: the decision of Supreme Court Justices in regards to Fourth Amendment issues are not easily predicted.

Cydney Joyner
About Cydney Joyner (13 Articles)
Cydney Joyner is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Winston-Salem, NC. She attended undergrad at Salem College, a women's college in Winston-Salem, where she studied Political Science, International Relations, and Religion. During the summer following her first year of law school, she worked at the Buncombe County District Attorney's Office in Asheville, NC. Her legal interests are criminal law, international law, and constitutional law. This summer Cydney is interning at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of NC in Asheville.