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U.S. Supreme Court Decides Major Criminal Justice Cases This Term

Posted by Joseph Tully | Nov 02, 2017

The 2017-18 United State Supreme Court term started the first Monday in October. They will deal with some major criminal justice issues, including vehicle searches and digital privacy.

There are two cases in particular, Carpenter v. the United States and Collins v. Virginia, that this court will rule on that will set the tone for our rights and how far law enforcement can go in violating them.

Huge Implications for Digital Privacy

At issue in Carpenter v. the United States iswhether the “warrantless seizure and search of historical cellphone records revealing the location and movements of a cellphone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment,” according to the SCOTUS blog.

In 2011, Detroit resident Timothy Carpenter was one of the suspects in a robbery investigation. The government did not obtain a probable cause warrant to months' worth of cell phone records – 127 days in Carpenter's case, along with nearly 13,000 points of location data. The government could trace Carpenter's whereabouts for nearly every minute of those four-plus months.

After Carpenter's conviction, partially based on the cell phone evidence, an appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ended with the decision that the Fourth Amendment does not require warrants. The ACLU, with others, petitioned the Supreme Court for review, and the Court announced it would hear the case on June 5, 2017.

As a sign of how fast technology is changing, it seems almost quaint that this case revolves around cell phone records. As the Internet of Things increasingly becomes part of our daily lives, almost every appliance in our house, as well as our motor vehicles, becomes part of our digital trail.

The Supreme Court's decision should protect our Constitutional right to privacy in a time when even our coffeemaker collects our data.

Police and Motor Vehicle Searches

Collins v. Virginia deals with “whether the Fourth Amendment's automobile exception permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter private property, approach a house and search a vehicle parked a few feet from the house.”

Ryan Austin Collins' route to a Supreme Court case began on June 4, 2013, when a police officer just outside Charlottesville witnessed a black and orange motorcycle commit a traffic offense. The motorcycle proceeded to roar off once the officer activated his police car's lights and eluded the cops.

A few weeks later, another officer saw a similar motorcycle speeding at 100 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. As the officer pursued the motorcycle, the motorcyclist sped up to 140 mph, and the officer eventually abandoned pursuit for safety reasons. He had, however, obtained a video of the motorcycle, including the license plates.

Further investigation found the motorcycle was registered to an Eric Jones, who had sold the motorcycle to Collins prior to the first eluding incident.

He admitted the motorcycle did not have a title and was probably stolen, information Jones had given to Collins. In September, Collins was involved in another incident, and the police officers involved in the eluding incidents heard his name on the police radio.

They questioned Collins, reading him his Miranda rights, and Collins stated he didn't know anything about a motorcycle. However, his Facebook page showed a recent post of this distinctive vehicle.

Collins continued to deny knowledge of the motorcycle, even after the Facebook posts were pointed out.

The officers later found the location of the house in the photo, and could see a motorcycle covered with a tarp. One officer went onto the driveway and uncovered the motorcycle, and it was indeed an orange and black modified Suzuki. The Vehicle Identification Number indicated it was stolen in New York some years earlier.

The tarp was put back on the motorcycle and the officer returned to his car to conduct surveillance.

When Collins returned, the officer went to the door and spoke with him. Collins initially denied any knowledge of the vehicle, then admitted he had purchased it from Jones sans title. The officer arrested Collins for receiving stolen property.

After Collins' grand jury indictment, his attorney moved to suppress the evidence based on Fourth Amendment grounds.

“What we're really talking about here is trespassing on real property. Trespassing on the curtilage of a home for the purposes of doing investigation. I would conclude that [the officer] violated the law in trespassing on private property. It was for the purpose of the search. He has no probable cause to do so. He certainly had no exigent circumstances. And any information that he gained as a result of that illegal trespass including [the] VIN number [should be suppressed],” was the argument.

The trial court predictably ruled that the officer did not violate Collins' Fourth Amendment rights. Collins was convicted of receiving stolen property. The Court of Appeals again predictably upheld the conviction, stating the officer “unquestionably had probable cause to believe the motorcycle was the one from the eluding incident.”

Under the “automobile” clause decided by the courts, officers usually do not require a warrant to search a motor vehicle if they suspect a crime. Collins v. Virginia focuses on whether such an exception includes an unoccupied vehicle sitting in someone's driveway.

If the Court rules against Collins, it could allow police to conduct further inspections of vehicles on private property when seeking criminal evidence.

While hearing about Collins' criminal behavior may make you want to root for law enforcement on this issue, consider this, would you want to wake up and have police officers going through your car in your driveway because it looked like another car that was involved in alleged criminal behavior?

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...