Police in Albemarle County, Virginia tried to pull over a speeding orange-and-black speed bike, but the motorcycle rider got away.
A few weeks later, another officer observed what he believed to be the same motorcycle travelling more than 100 mph in a 55 mph zone. Again, the motorcycle sped away, this time at more than 140 miles per hour, but the officer was able to get the license plate and traced it to the registered owner, Eric Jones. Jones advised Officer Rhodes that he had sold the motorcycle to Ryan Collins with the warning that it was stolen.
Previously, police had contact with Collins on a separate matter. He was trying to register a car with the DMV that resulted in a forgery charge which was dismissed. However, that contact made it possible for police to find Collins’ public Facebook profile where there were photos of the motorcycle parked next to the same car.
With the help of an informant, Office Rhodes located Collin’s home where he saw in the driveway what he guessed was the same motorcycle. Officer Rhodes lifted the “tarp” (the American Motorcycle Association filed an amicus brief making reference to it as a cover many times) and after checking the VIN number, confirmed the motorcycle was reported stolen in New York.
When confronted by police, Collins denied any knowledge of the motorcycle being stolen (smart) but eventually confessed (stupid). When he was arrested, the key to the motorcycle was found inside his pocket (stupider). For the record, Facebook gets people in trouble all the time with the legal system. When will people learn?
At trial, Collins’ attorney failed to have the evidence suppressed with the same result in the appellate court, resulting a three year prison sentence.
The trial court held probable cause existed for the search because of exigent circumstances and the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
The appeals court affirmed on the grounds of exigent circumstances and the Virginia Supreme Court did as well, but only under the automobile exception. The Virginia Supreme Court reasoned that the automobile exception was applicable because the motorcycle is “immediately mobile” and that it applies to vehicles parked on private property.
Exigent circumstances are an exception to warrantless searches where a situation arises where applying the reasonable person standard, an officer believes there may be threat to others, destruction of evidence, or escape. I always use as an example with my students imagine a police officer sees a person in the middle of the street firing an AK- 47, then runs into a house. An officer would not need a warrant to enter the house.
In this situation, the motorcycle was parked in the driveway and covered. It wasn’t going anywhere and police already knew were the suspect lived.
The automobile exception is based on the fact that cars have less of a right to privacy and because a car is mobile, a warrantless search can be conducted if there is probable cause to believe there is contraband inside the car. Think of a police officer witnessing a drug buy. But again, the motorcycle was parked in the driveway (private property) and covered. If it were parked in a mall where the rider can ride away, then it’s understandable in my opinion.
Experts on the Fourth Amendment seem to believe this case will result in a ruling favorable to Collins. Past cases have indicated that the “curtilage” of a property is considered part of the home and thus, subject to the warrant requirement. This even resulted in Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg mentioning that apparently, if you can afford a garage, you are protected, but with a driveway, you aren’t.