Court Voids Virginia Police Motorcycle Search

An 8-1 majority said a Virginia police officer illegally searched a motorcycle on private property. Dissenter Justice Samuel Alito said that “an ordinary person of common sense” would react as a Charles Dickens character would, saying “the law is an ass–a idiot.”

A Virginia police officer improperly searched without a warrant a motorcycle parked on private property, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday. In an 8-1 ruling, the court said that the law’s so-called automobile exception does not apply to vehicles parked within a home or “curtilage” of a private homeowner. In the case from Albemarle County, Va., officers saw the driver of an orange and black motorcycle commit two separate traffic violations. When officer David Rhodes later saw what he believed was the offending vehicle outside a home, he lifted a tarp and determined that had been stolen, arresting the owner, Ryan Collins.

Collins argued that the police illegally entered the property to search. The high court previously has upheld the warrantless searches and seizures of automobiles on the ground that they can be moved quickly. Writing for the court majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a lower court should decide whether “Rhodes’ warrantless intrusion” may have been reasonable on a different basis, such as the presence of “exigent circumstances.” Dissenting Justice Samuel Alito said the majority’s ruling is based on the fact that the police officer was required to walk “30 feet or so up the driveway” of the house. Quoting Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, Alito said, “An ordinary person of common sense would react to the Court’s decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life. If that is the law, he exclaimed, “the law is a ass—a idiot.”