Opinions: Searching Vehicles Next to a Home and Restitution

The Court issued two opinions this week, and it disposed of one more case without a decision. In Collins v. Virginia, the Court considered the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s “automobile exception,” which allows a police officer to search a vehicle without first getting a warrant under some circumstances. The rationale for this exception is in part that evidence of criminal activity could be removed because of the vehicle’s mobility. Collins argued that the automobile exception should not apply when the vehicle is parked in the “curtilage,” which is the area immediately surrounding a home. Under the Fourth Amendment, a home’s curtilage is afforded the same protections as the home itself.

In an 8-1 opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not allow a police officer to conduct such a search. The Court held that when the officer in this case intruded upon the curtilage of Collins’ home to search a motorcycle, he was invading Collins’ Fourth Amendment interests in both the curtilage of his home and the motorcycle itself. The Court declined to extend the automobile exception to allow police officers to invade the space surrounding a vehicle if that space is otherwise protected by the Fourth Amendment, considering the curtilage of a home to be analogous to the home itself. Addressing the State of Virginia’s proposed rule that the automobile exception apply to vehicles on property so long as they are not enclosed by a fixed structure (i.e., a garage), the Court noted that adopting such a rule would mean that Fourth Amendment rights would be granted to those with the means to store their vehicles in garages but denied to those without the financial resources to do so. NPR called the decision “win for privacy rights.”

In his dissent, Justice Alito called the Court’s decision strikingly unreasonable. He argued that an ordinary person of common sense would react to this decision as Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist did when told about a perplexing legal rule “the law is a ass – a idiot,” and that the search in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the officer had probable cause, and someone could have driven the vehicle away in a matter of seconds. As Reason magazine discusses, Justice Alito’s dissent is hardly surprising given his history of being on the opposite side of a Fourth Amendment case from Justice Sotomayor.

The second opinion issued was in Lagos v. United States, a case ISCOTUSnow described in April. Lagos was ordered to pay restitution to the company he defrauded to cover the costs of its investigation. Some of the investigation methods were not “required nor requested” by the government, however.  The Court, in an opinion by Justice Breyer, unanimously held that the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act  authorizes  restitution only to costs related the victim’s participation in governmental criminal  investigations. Kevin Lessmiller of Courthouse News Service explained the Court’s reasoning that because the terms “investigation” and “prosecution” are directly linked in the Act, they must refer to the same “general type,” and since “prosecution” denotes a criminal prosecution, “investigation” refers to a criminal investigation only.  Check out Lexology and JDSUPRA for more information.

Finally, the Court dismissed as improvidently granted City of Hays, Kansas v. Vogt. L. Bradfield Hughes, attorney at Porter Wright, described improvidently granted dismissals for Ohio Lawyer in 2013. He explained tat they can occur for a number of reasons, such as procedural waivers or other substantive reasons, such as if the court determines the issue is best left to be decided by the political branches. As the Hays Daily News reports, the Tenth Circuit’s decision ruling that the Fifth Amendment is violated when a defendant’s compelled incriminating statement is used against him in a probable cause hearing, not just in criminal proceedings, remains intact. While the specific reasons for this dismissal were not given by the Court, Tony Mauro of The National Law Journal writes it was not a surprise, as the justices raised concerns during oral arguments that led some to believe the case would be dismissed. Justice Breyer was concerned of the irregularities of the case and Justices Alito and Sotomayor believed the case was “odd.” However, most telling was Chief Justice John Robert’s severe concern about the use of statements of fact that did not appear in the record.

The Court is expected to issue more opinions this coming Monday. Stay tuned to ISCOTIUSnow for more coverage.

ISCOTUS Fellows Matthew Webber, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019, Zoe Arthurson-McColl, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, contributed to this post, which was edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Anna Jirschele, Chicago-Kent Class of 2018 and overseen by ISCOTUS co-director and Chicago-Kent faculty member Carolyn Shapiro.

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