Collins v. Virginia

138 S.Ct. 1663 (2018)

U.S. Supreme Court

May 29, 2018

On June 4, 2013, Officer Matthew McCall of the Albemarle County, Virginia Police Department was patrolling on Route 29 near the border of Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville when he observed a traffic infraction by the operator of an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame. Officer McCall activated his emergency lights and attempted to stop the motorcycle, but the motorcycle eluded him at a high rate of speed.

Several weeks later, on July 25, 2013, Officer David Rhodes, also of the Albemarle Police Department, was in his police car on the Route 250 Bypass when he observed an orange and black motorcycle traveling at 100 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone. Officer Rhodes engaged his emergency equipment and pursued the motorcycle. Instead of stopping, the motorcyclist increased his speed to at least 140 mph and sped away from the police car. In the interest of safety, Officer Rhodes abandoned his pursuit. However, Officer Rhodes’ police car video camera recorded the incident, and police were able to use this footage to obtain a still photograph of the motorcycle, including its license plates.

The motorcycle was an orange and black Suzuki with chrome accents and a “stretched out” rear wheel, indicating that it had been modified for drag racing. Officer Rhodes could not identify the driver through the darkly tinted helmet, but he observed that the motorcyclist wore blue jeans and “tan Timberland-type work boots.” The motorcyclist who eluded Officer McCall two months earlier also wore jeans and “Timberland-type-style boots.” After comparing notes and identifying “an awful lot of similarities” between the two eluding incidents, Officers McCall and Rhodes concluded the same motorcyclist had eluded each of them.

When Officer Rhodes entered the motorcycle’s license plate number in a police database, he discovered that the tags were “not on file” and had been inactive for several years. The license plate was most recently registered to Eric Jones. In the course of his investigation, Officer Rhodes learned that Mr. Jones had sold the motorcycle to Mr. Ryan Austin Collins before the eluding incidents. Later, at trial, Mr. Jones testified that he sold Mr. Collins the motorcycle in April 2013 with the caveat that the motorcycle lacked title and was stolen.

On September 10, 2013, Albemarle Police responded to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to investigate an unrelated matter involving Mr. Collins. Upon hearing Mr. Collins’ name on the police radio, Officers Rhodes and McCall also responded to the DMV to question Mr. Collins since he was a suspect in the motorcycle eluding incidents. Officer McCall advised Mr. Collins of his Miranda rights, and Mr. Collins agreed to speak to the officers. When questioned about the motorcycle, Mr. Collins denied knowing anything about it, and told the officers that he “hadn’t ridden a motorcycle in months.” Meanwhile, Officer Rhodes searched a Facebook and found two photographs posted on Mr. Collins’ Facebook page depicting the motorcycle which appeared to have been involved in the eluding incidents. The photographs showed the orange and black motorcycle parked in a driveway next to the vehicle Mr. Collins was attempting to register at the DMV.

The record indicates that police arrived at the DMV after receiving a report that Mr. Collins was attempting to register a stolen silver Acura.  Mr. Collins had allegedly forged the title to the Acura in an attempt to reduce the taxes on the vehicle, but the forgery charge was subsequently dismissed and is not relevant to this appeal.

Officer Rhodes later testified that upon seeing the photographs of the motorcycle on Mr. Collins’ Facebook page, he “knew 100% sure that … was the same motorcycle that had not stopped for me on the bypass based on looking at it. It was very distinct and I knew, absolutely no question in my mind that was the same motorcycle.” However, when the officers showed Mr. Collins the Facebook photographs, Mr. Collins denied any knowledge of the motorcycle or the house depicted in the photographs.  Spoiler alert – Mr. Collins is a liar.

After the questioning concluded, Mr. Collins left the DMV and the officers continued their investigation. Officer Rhodes learned from an informant that the house in the Facebook photograph was located at 2304 Dellmead Lane, Charlottesville, Virginia. Less than half an hour later, Officer Rhodes located the house and parked along the street. From his position on the street, Officer Rhodes could see what appeared to be a motorcycle covered with a white tarp. At trial, Officer Rhodes testified that “a quarter of the wheel [was] sticking out from underneath the cover” and that despite the tarp, he recognized the distinct chrome accents and “stretched out” shape of the motorcycle. Additionally, the location and angle of the partially covered motorcycle matched that of the motorcycle in Collins’ Facebook photographs.

This is 2304 Dellmead Lane, Charlottesville, Virginia where the U.S. Supreme Court determined that part of the driveway was curtilage.

Officer Rhodes then walked onto the property, “a car length or two” up the driveway, between the street and the front steps of the house. While standing on the driveway, Officer Rhodes uncovered the motorcycle and confirmed that it appeared to be the same orange and black Suzuki that had eluded him on July 25, 2013. He then recorded the motorcycle’s vehicle identification number or “VIN.” A computer search of the VIN revealed the motorcycle had been “stolen out of New York” several years before. After gathering this information, Officer Rhodes recovered the motorcycle, left the property, and returned to his police car to conduct surveillance and wait for Mr. Collins.

The walkway to the front door leads left before the area where the motorcycle was parked and underneath a tarp.  That area is beyond the lawnmower and garbage can near the table tent.  This is the exact area that the U.S. Supreme Court held as curtilage and protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Shortly thereafter, a vehicle dropped off Mr. Collins at 2304 Dellmead Lane. Officer Rhodes returned to the house and knocked on the door, which Mr. Collins answered. Although it was “over 90 [degrees] that day,” Collins came to the door dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and Timberland-style boots. When asked about the motorcycle, Mr. Collins initially said he “didn’t know anything about it.” He then told Officer Rhodes it belonged to a friend. Eventually, Mr. Collins admitted that he purchased the motorcycle, without a title, from Mr. Eric Jones.

A bench trial was held, and he was convicted of Receiving Stolen Property.  Mr. Collins appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals and the Virginia Supreme Court.  Both courts upheld the conviction, so he again appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which held “[W]e conclude that the automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.”.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The U.S. Supreme Court decided the case as two legal doctrines clashed. The prosecution argued that the vehicle exception should be applied as the VIN search of the motorcycle under the tarp was lawful.  The defense, on behalf of Mr. Collins, argued that when law enforcement entered the back part of the driveway where the motorcycle was covered by the tarp it was within the ‘curtilage’ of the home and therefore violated the Fourth Amendment.  Ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court held on behalf of the defense that law enforcement did violate Mr. Collins Fourth Amendment when they entered the curtilage of 2304 Dellmead Lane.  The court made this determination even though law enforcement had probable cause to believe it was the motorcycle underneath the tarp.  Yet the court reasoned law enforcement needed a warrant to go this protected Curtilage area.
  1. So what EXACTLY is curtilage? Lets begin with a case law excerpt from 1984 “At common law, the curtilage is the area to which extends the intimate activity associated with the “sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life,” Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 630 (1886), and therefore has been considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. Thus, courts have extended Fourth Amendment protection to the curtilage; and they have defined the curtilage, as did the common law, by reference to the factors that determine whether an individual reasonably may expect that an area immediately adjacent to the home will remain private.” Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 180 (1984)
  1. Typically, curtilage is part of the property that is an extension of the home. Often it is the covered porch, car port, shed, barn, attached and detached garages.  In United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987) J. White provided four factors to consider in determining Curtilage:
  1. Proximity of the are claimed to be curtilage to the home.
  2. Whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home.
  3. The nature of the uses to which the area is put; and
  4. The steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by the people passing by.

Here, the motorcycle was parked beyond the walkway to the front door.  The court reasoned that went beyond the area a visitor would access and would be considered curtilage.

  1. Each residence is unique so there can be no hardline rule on what is considered curtilage. Rather it will be a case by case or house by house determination.  This is yet another reason why law enforcement is the Hardest Job in America. If an officer is unclear whether or not an area of a home is curtilage then a warrant based upon probable cause should be obtained before searching.
  1. The prosecution argued that the Automobile Exception should be applied since the motorcycle was in the driveway. Though a unique argument, it would have been a miracle for the U.S. Supreme Court to have applied it.  Had the Automobile Exception been upheld in this case then law enforcement would not need a warrant to go into a home with an automobile, motorcycle or other vehicle because the Automobile Exception would be held superior the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement to enter houses.  Keep in mind that the curtilage is an extension of the home which is why this search, based on probable cause, failed.

Information from this article was obtained from Collins v. Virginia, 138 S.Ct. 1663 (2018), and Oral Arguments from Collins v. Virginia, 138 S.Ct. 1663 (2018).

Does your agency train on Curtilage?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.