Do Police Need A Search Warrant To Search Vehicles In Your Driveway?

In many types of cases—especially drug and firearms cases—the police may want to search a vehicle parked in a suspect’s driveway.  A recent United States Supreme Court holds that in most situations, they need a search warrant to do so. Experienced criminal defense lawyer John Helms explains why this is a victory for privacy.

In Collins v. Virginia, a police officer had reason to believe that the defendant was in possession of a stolen motorcycle with an extended frame that was orange and black.  The officer went to the defendant’s house and saw what appeared to be an extended-frame motorcycle parked in the driveway and covered by a tarp. The officer did not have a search warrant.  He walked up the driveway, lifted up the tarp, confirmed that it was the stolen motorcycle, took photos, replaced the tarp, and waited for the defendant to come home. When he did, the officer arrested him.

In a victory for privacy, the Supreme Court held that the search was illegal under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, even though the officer arguably had probable cause to believe the stolen motorcycle was there.  If the motorcycle or car had been on a public road, the police would have been able to search it without a search warrant if they had probable cause to believe that the car was stolen or contained contraband. This is because a long line of Supreme Court cases has held that vehicles on a public road can be moved so easily that it does not make sense to require an officer to get a search warrant.

The difference, in this case, was that the vehicle was parked in a private driveway next to a private home.  The driveway was part of what is known as the “curtilage” of the house, which is an area “adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends.”  The Supreme Court has long held that the curtilage of a home has the same Constitutional privacy protection as the home itself. So, the fact that the motorcycle was on the curtilage gave it more privacy protection than if it was on a public road.  Therefore, the Supreme Court said that the officer had to get a search warrant to go onto the private driveway to access the motorcycle. Since he did not have one, the search was illegal, and the conviction was thrown out.

Police officers are used to searching vehicles on public roads without a search warrant in a variety of situations, including when they smell drugs, when a police dog alerts on the car, and when they have arrested someone and are taking them away and leaving the vehicle to be towed.  This latter situation is called an “inventory” search. Collins v. Virginia shows that the rules that apply to vehicles on public roads do not apply to vehicles in a private driveway.

I expect the Collins holding will come up in a number of different situations.  For example, what if the police arrest someone at their home, see that the person’s car is parked in the driveway, and decide they want to search it?  Under Collins, unless some other exception to the Fourth Amendment applies, they would have to get a search warrant.

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, or Sherman, and there was a search of a house, vehicle, or storage area, you should consult with a skilled criminal defense lawyer who is fully versed in the law of searches and seizures.  If the search was illegal, it is possible that the entire case could be dismissed.  These kinds of searches are very common in drug trafficking and firearms cases, in particular.  The law in this area is complicated, and the lawyer you hire should have expertise in this particular area of law so that your rights can be fully protected.    


Criminal Defense Lawyer John Helms

(T): 214-666-8010