STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A ruling by the United States Supreme Court affects just how much police can do when they grow curious about your home. The court ruled that police may not search the area around a private home without a warrant even when they have good reason to think there's stolen property on the premises. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: By an 8 to 1 vote, the court said that police can't just walk up a private driveway or onto a car patio or a garden to see if there's proof of a crime there. Such an invasion of private property, the court said, cannot be justified under the exception the court has carved out to allow police to stop vehicles for traffic violations and, where justified, to search the car without a warrant. The case began when a man on an orange-and-black motorcycle twice evaded police in Virginia. After some investigation, police were able to figure out who the likely motorcycle rider was and where he lived, at least most of the time, at his girlfriend's house. Officer David Rhodes drove to the address and saw what appeared to be a similar motorcycle under a tarp. He walked up the driveway, pulled off the tarp, took down the license plate number and ran a search on it which revealed the motorcycle was stolen.
Collins, who later admitted he bought the bike without title, was arrested and convicted of receiving stolen property. At each stage of the case, Collins' lawyer challenged the warrantless search contending that the evidence was illegally obtained and thus could not be used against his client. At each stage, Collins lost. Now, normally when police search a home or the private property around it, which is known as the curtilage, they have to get a warrant. But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the warrantless search of the bike was justified under the so-called automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the court majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the heart of the Constitution's protection of curtilage is the right to retreat into one's own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion. Just like the front porch, the side garden or the area outside the front window, she said, the driveway enclosure where Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle requires a search warrant. Boston University constitutional and criminal law professor Tracey Maclin.
TRACEY MACLIN: I think the justices were worried about how Virginia's rule would affect people not just in the inner city - 'cause there's not a lot of curtilage around apartment buildings - but in the suburbs, frankly.
TOTENBERG: The lone dissenter from yesterday's ruling was Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion saying that while he agreed with the court's reading of the constitutional question, he doubted the Supreme Court's authority to impose that constitutional rule on the states. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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