One of the many protections afforded individuals by the United States Constitution is the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure without a search warrant. There are certain exceptions to the shield provided by the Fourth Amendment, one of which is the automobile exception. Under the automobile exception, a police officer may search an automobile without a warrant as long as he or she has probable cause to believe there is evidence or contraband in the vehicle. While the automobile exception limits the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment, it is important to know the scope of authority police officers are afforded by the exception. If the automobile exception was unjustly applied to obtain evidence in your Illinois DUI case, you may be able to prevent the evidence from being used against you.
Recently, in Collins v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit a warrantless entry of the curtilage of a home, and in doing so specifically declined to extend the exception to allow searches outside of the automobile itself. In Collins, police believed the suspect was in possession of a stolen motorcycle after an officer observed the motorcycle under a tarp in the suspect’s driveway. The officer then proceeded to walk up the driveway, uncover the motorcycle, and run the license plate number to confirm it was stolen. When the suspect returned to his home, he was arrested. During his trial, the suspect filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that, in performing the search without a warrant, the officer trespassed on the curtilage of the suspect’s house. The trial court denied the suspect’s motion and he was convicted of receiving stolen property. On appeal, the Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling, holding exigent circumstances justified the officer entering the property and uncovering the motorcycle to view the license plate. On further appeal, the State Supreme Court affirmed the trial court ruling on different grounds, holding that the officer was permitted to conduct the warrantless search by the automobile exception.
The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. In ruling on the case, the Court noted that officers may search an automobile without a warrant as long as they have probable cause, but it declined to expand the scope of the automobile exception. The Court explained curtilage, which is defined as the area surrounding and associated with a house, is thought of as part of the house for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, and, as such, a search of the curtilage constitutes a Fourth Amendment search and is unreasonable without a warrant. The Court rejected Virginia’s argument that the automobile exception permitted a warrantless search of an automobile at any time, in any place, stating that to rule otherwise would defeat the Fourth Amendment protection that extends to a house and its curtilage, ultimately creating a much broader exception than was intended. The Court held that, contrary to the argument set forth by Virginia, the automobile exception does not afford officers the right to search any space outside of the automobile. The Court further noted that allowing warrantless searches of vehicles parked in the curtilage violated both the sanctity of the curtilage and the Fourth Amendment interest in the vehicle. Lastly, the Court declined to adopt Virginia’s reasoning that the automobile exception should allow warrantless searches of the curtilage only, and not the house associated with the curtilage, noting this would lead to both confusion and diminished protection for individuals who could not afford built-in garages.