McGuireWoods Appellate Team Wins Key Fourth Amendment Case at U.S. Supreme Court

Victory in Collins v. Virginia Clarifies Automobile Exception

May 30, 2018

On May 29, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with McGuireWoods’ client Ryan Collins and ruled that police officers without a warrant cannot use the automobile exception to enter a home’s curtilage to access a vehicle. The ruling in Collins v. Virginia provides needed clarity regarding the scope of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

McGuireWoods partner Matt Fitzgerald, co-chair of the firm’s appellate practice, argued Collins’ case at the Supreme Court on Jan. 9. The team also included associates Travis Gunn and Brian Schmalzbach.

According to the opinion, in September 2013, police looking for a motorcyclist who had eluded officers saw a photo of a similar motorcycle posted on Collins’ social media account. An officer went to a Charlottesville, Virginia, house where Collins was staying and spotted a motorcycle under a tarp in the driveway. Without a warrant or invitation, the officer walked onto the driveway, removed the tarp, checked its license plate and vehicle identification number, and 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 in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. He was convicted and the Virginia courts rejected his argument that the search was unconstitutional. McGuireWoods subsequently took on Collins’ appeal pro bono.

In ruling for Collins, Justice Sonia Sotomayor — writing for an 8-1 majority — stated: “The question before the Court is whether the automobile exception justifies the invasion of the curtilage. The answer is no.”  The Court ruled that police officers who want to search a vehicle parked near a home must typically have a warrant.

“The Court has decisively ruled that an individual’s protection from unreasonable searches extends to vehicles parked within the curtilage of a home,” Fitzgerald said. “We are pleased that the Supreme Court vindicated Mr. Collins’ Fourth Amendment rights in this important case.”