Fourth Amendment vs Moving Vehicle Doctrine: Know Your Rights

by | Apr 29, 2021 | Criminal Defense

In 2014, police officers in Virginia spotted a distinct motorcycle speeding down the highway—so fast that officers couldn’t pursue. It was modified for racing with chrome accents and had been reported as stolen.

Officers learned the name of the suspected driver and, using his Facebook profile, were able to gather additional information—including pictures of the stolen motorcycle on his profile. The house where the suspect lived was located. Officers observed what appeared to be the same motorcycle parked in the driveway. They approached, confirmed the serial number, and waited for the suspect to come to the front door. He eventually confessed to purchasing the motorcycle knowing it was stolen and to reckless driving as well.

One of the fundamental principles covered by the Fourth Amendment is protection against unreasonable search and seizure at home. The bar for obtaining a warrant to enter someone’s residence is the signature of a judge on said warrant, after officers have demonstrated probable cause to justify searching a private residence, property, or person.

The question in this case: was the motorcycle “at home” or was it covered under the “moving vehicle doctrine,” which allows for vehicular searches without a warrant—if there is probable cause during traffic stops? An important distinction to note is the automobile exception was written to permit a warrantless search “of” a vehicle and not “for” a vehicle.

This argument went to the Supreme Court in 2018 to determine if this search fit within the “automobile exception,” a rule designed for mobile vehicles or if it violated the driver’s Fourth Amendment right against warrantless government searches. The ruling in this case would solidify whether police could validly search a motor vehicle sitting in a defendant’s driveway without a warrant.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the motorcycle driver.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in Collins V. Virginia, 2018, “When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on private property and walks up to a house to look for evidence, such conduct, thus, is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant.”