Homeland Security

Supreme Court Rules to Protect Curtilage of House from Warrantless Searches

The Supreme Court recently ruled that law enforcement may not search a vehicle parked within the curtilage of a house. While the decision should not have a significant impact on law enforcement investigations, officials should be aware of various distinctions the Court made protecting property owners’ rights against warrantless searches.

Curtilage broadly means the area around a house that the homeowners use as part of their daily lives. This includes driveways close to the house, porches, walkways, and so on. Legal references to the curtilage have existed since the common law days of England and continued in U.S. courts. Historically, the Supreme Court has ruled that the curtilage, being so near the house, is included within the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable, warrantless searches and seizures.

The case originated in Virginia. A couple police officers encountered a distinctive motorcycle a couple weeks apart. After conducting a brief investigation, they found the bike was most likely stolen and located at a particular address. When one of the officers went to the address, he found a motorcycle in the driveway, near the house, underneath a tarp. The officer walked up the driveway, removed the tarp, found the bike in question, and verified its status as stolen. The officer then waited for the defendant to show up, questioned, and arrested him.

As the case wound its way through courts, the courts found the search to be valid and convicted the defendant. The first appellate court found the search to occur within the curtilage of the house, but that exigent circumstances—or narrow, specific exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirements—existed, justifying the officer’s entry into the curtilage. The Virginia Supreme Court sustained the appellate court, but changed the reasoning, finding that the search fell within the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment. The defendant then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The automobile exception permits law enforcement officials to search automobiles within certain perimeters. Generally speaking, law enforcement officials must have reason to believe the vehicle, or its occupants, are implicated in criminal activity, contain contraband, and so on. Law enforcement officials typically engage in a warrantless search of the vehicle after stopping it for some reason, usually a traffic violation.

In this case, the motorcycle in question was parked near the house, beyond where a visitor would enter the walkway to the front door. The question facing the Supreme Court was whether the law enforcement official conducted the search within the curtilage, which would require a warrant, or whether the automobile exception applied and no warrant was required.

The Supreme Court acknowledged the competing interests. Vehicles are very transient. They can disappear and the evidence of criminal infractions with them. At the same time, a house is a person’s castle. The Fourth Amendment protects individuals’ “persons, houses, and effects.” Courts have long recognized that the curtilage is part of the “house.”

The decision is somewhat straightforward. The Court refused to apply the vehicle exception to include searches for vehicles on private property. According to the Court, “[T]he scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself… nothing in our case law… suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant.”

Courts will protect private properties against warrantless searches. Courts, generally speaking, have long recognized that the curtilage of a home falls within Fourth Amendment protections. The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment will not protect against suppression of evidence by a trial or appellate court if officials obtained the evidence by invading a home or home’s curtilage.

The Supreme Court made the right decision. The court upheld the framer’s view of the Fourth Amendment, protecting individual liberty and property, which are the fundamental basis of a free market, by determining that a law enforcement officer may not intrude into the protected space around a home without a warrant.

Of note:

Justice Thomas concurred in the outcome of the case, but wrote separately to express his concerns with the federal exclusionary rule as it is applied to states. According to the concurring opinion, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution reaches only to the “Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties…” The federal exclusionary rule is a judge-made rule, not a law passed by Congress. As such, it falls under federal common law. Federal common law is not included within the Supremacy Clause and, consequently, Justice Thomas is hesitant to force states to adhere to it.


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