Does the Fourth Amendment Exception Apply to Vehicles Parked on Private Property?

Fourth Amendment Protections

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids unreasonable or warrantless searches of your private property by law enforcement or other authority figures without your expressed consent, stating:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

While the Fourth Amendment protects you from unlawful searches, it does not disallow all unwanted searches of private property. An investigation of your private property by law enforcement may be legal, constitutional, and compliant with Fourth Amendment protections if any the following are true:

  • Police have gone through the proper channels and obtained a search warrant.
  • Police have probable cause to suspect you have committed or are committing a crime and that a search of your private property will produce evidence of the crime in question.
  • You do not have a legitimate expectation of privacy (or your expectations of privacy would not be reasonable according to societal norms) which would prevent the property in question from being searched.
  • You have explicitly consented to a search.

These criteria matter because they ensure police do not override your rights to privacy when searching for evidence of a crime. They also imply that not every search conducted without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment and leave room for the possibility that not every search conducted with a warrant is necessarily justified. The latter may be advantageous in your case if your arrest or criminal charges were based on evidence which came to light through search or seizure that was allowed by a warrant issued without probable cause.

There are a number of exceptions to the Fourth Amendment which allow law enforcement to conduct warrantless searches of certain property and under specific circumstances. These can include:

  • Searches of abandoned property
  • Searches conducted after legitimate arrest
  • Searches of items in plain sight
  • Searches of automobiles

The Fourth Amendment Exception: Vehicle Searches

Car searches are perhaps the most significant (and certainly one of the most debated) exceptions to the Fourth Amendment. According to rationale laid out in more than 200 cases decided in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), there are strict limitations as to when and how law enforcement may search your vehicle.

These decisions reveal that there are some automobile searches which do not require a warrant, including:

  • Searches based on reasonable suspicion that an automobile holds evidence of a crime (Arizona v. Gant, 2009)
  • Searches based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a traffic infraction or other crime has been committed or is actively in progress (United States v. Arvizu, 2002)
  • Searches conducted during investigatory traffic stops, even if there is no suspicion of a crime (Arizona v. Johnson, 2009)
  • Searches of automobiles and individuals as part of broader suspicion of criminal activity in the area (Illinois v. Lidster, 2004)

Generally speaking, police are permitted to search vehicles without a warrant because of the ease with which the owner or driver of a vehicle can move to another jurisdiction (potentially making issued warrants obsolete) and the necessity of conducting an immediate search when an officer suspects criminal activity or intent.

After a warrantless search of their vehicle, people who are arrested and charged with a crime often have questions regarding their Fourth Amendment rights, including whether or not police are permitted to search vehicles parked on private property.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Collins v. Virginia

On May 29, 2018, SCOTUS decided Collins v. Virginia, which provides some clarity as to whether cars parked on private property are included in the Fourth Amendment vehicle exception.

Collins was driving a distinctly identifiable (and allegedly stolen) motorcycle and managed to evade police twice. Police were pursuing him after seeing him commit several traffic offenses. Police suspected Collins was the driver and drove to his house, where an officer saw a motorcycle sitting in the driveway underneath an opaque tarp. The officer walked onto Collins’ property, looked under the tarp, and saw that it was the same motorcycle.

Upon Collins’ return to his house, the officer questioned him about the motorcycle, which Collins admitted to purchasing with the knowledge that it was stolen. Police arrested him and charged him for receipt of stolen property. Later, Collins and his attorneys claimed the officer’s warrantless search was unlawful because the motorcycle was parked on private property.

SCOTUS decided in favor of Collins, affirming that the Fourth Amendment vehicle exception does not give law enforcement permission to search vehicles parked within the curtilage of a suspect’s home. (“Curtilage” refers to the area surrounding a person’s private residence.)

Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Serving Victims of Unlawful Search & Seizure

If you are facing criminal charges based on unlawfully obtained evidence, get in touch with a Nebraska criminal defense lawyer right away. Our team at Berry Law understands the extent of Fourth Amendment protections and may be able to help you determine whether police breached your constitutional rights when searching your vehicle or other private property. We also may be able to provide the compelling defense you need to suppress illegally gathered evidence and prevent the court from considering it when hearing your case.

We have defended the rights of accused persons since 1965, and we can help you achieve a positive outcome in your case.

Call 402-817-6469 today or fill out this short submission form to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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