McGuireWoods to Argue Fourth Amendment Case at U.S. Supreme Court

October 2, 2017

On Sept. 28, the U.S. Supreme Court granted McGuireWoods’ petition for certiorari in Collins v. Virginia, No. 16-1027. Counsel of record is partner Matt Fitzgerald, who will argue the case this winter at the high court. The case offers the justices an opportunity to clarify the automobile search exception to the warrant requirement in the Fourth Amendment.
The case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court from the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Virginia justices ruled in September 2016 that an officer, who entered private property without the owner’s permission or a warrant to search a motorcycle parked near a house and covered by a tarp, acted properly under the automobile exception.
In September 2013, police looking for a motorcyclist who had eluded officers saw a photo of a similar motorcycle posted on Ryan Collins’ social media account. An officer went to Collins’ residence in Charlottesville and spotted a motorcycle under a tarp at the back of the house’s driveway. The officer walked onto the driveway, removed the tarp and, from a check of the motorcycle vehicle identification number and its license plate, found it was stolen.
Charged with receiving stolen property, Collins argued that the state’s evidence should be suppressed because it resulted from a warrantless search on private property in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Virginia trial and appellate courts rejected Collins’ argument. The state Supreme Court ruled that the automobile exception applied because the vehicle was “readily mobile” with easy access to a road and because police reasonably believed “the motorcycle was contraband.”
McGuireWoods took on the appeal pro bono last fall. 
The McGuireWoods team on the case is led by Fitzgerald and includes associates Travis Gunn and Brian Schmalzbach. Fitzgerald, co-chair of the firm’s appellate practice, and Schmalzbach are former U.S. Supreme Court clerks for Justice Clarence Thomas. Gunn clerked at the Supreme Court of Virginia before joining McGuireWoods. 
“We’re very pleased that the Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case. Police searches of cars occur all around the country every day, and we hope this case will both vindicate Mr. Collins’ Fourth Amendment rights and provide important clarity to officers about where they can go to search a vehicle without a warrant,” Fitzgerald said. Case law from Georgia, Alabama and Illinois, as well as federal opinions, differ on whether and how far onto private, residential property the automobile exception extends. 
The firm is the 2017 recipient of the Frankie Muse Freeman Organizational Pro Bono Award, presented by the Virginia State Bar for McGuireWoods’ commitment to taking on pro bono cases large and small.