RICHMOND, Va. - The high-speed pursuit of a motorcycle that began in Albemarle County 4½ years ago leads this month to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose justices will hear arguments on a search-and-seizure question.
A Charlottesville-area man was convicted in 2014 of receiving stolen property — the motorcycle, which twice had been used to elude police — after an officer who suspected it was stolen walked onto private property and removed a tarp covering the bike without a search warrant.
Matthew Fitzgerald, a Richmond lawyer who will argue the case for the defense Jan. 9, said, “It’s a clash between two Fourth Amendment interests.”
On one hand, the protection of the home and its immediate surroundings has received the highest level of Fourth Amendment protection, he said.
“Police generally need a warrant to come into your house or come into the area immediately around your house,” Fitzgerald said.
On the other hand, courts recognize an exception to the search warrant requirement for automobiles, if there is probable cause that contraband or evidence is inside, or in “exigent circumstances” where public safety is at risk or evidence might be destroyed or removed.
“This case brings those two together and (asks), ‘Well, what about vehicles that are right around your house?’ Like, in a garage or in a carport or, in this case, this sort of parking patio that’s right up against the side of the house?” Fitzgerald said.
In briefs to the Supreme Court, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office says that the officer had more than sufficient probable cause to look for the motorcycle’s identification number and that the vehicle exception does not automatically end in the immediate area of a home.
According to the Virginia Supreme Court summary of the case, it began in the summer of 2013, when officers with the Albemarle Police Department twice attempted to catch and stop an orange-and-black Suzuki motorcycle that had been modified for drag racing.
Each time, the motorcycle sped off, in one case at speeds up to 140 mph. The rider was believed to be the same man in both cases and wore blue jeans and Timberland-style boots.
A video camera in one police car captured the license plate on the motorcycle. The plate turned out to have been inactive for several years. The person who had most recently registered the license plate told police that he sold the motorcycle to Ryan Austin Collins. He later testified that he had cautioned Collins that the motorcycle was stolen and did not have a title.
Police found two photographs posted on Collins’ Facebook page with images of the motorcycle that they believed they had pursued. When shown the photographs, Collins denied any knowledge of the motorcycle or of the house also seen in the photographs.
An informant told police the house in the Facebook photographs was located in Charlottesville, near the Albemarle line. An Albemarle officer went to the address and from the street spotted what appeared to be a motorcycle covered with a tarp.
Enough of one wheel was exposed that the officer recognized distinctive chrome accents and the non-standard shape of the motorcycle. Also, the location and angle of the partially covered motorcycle matched that of the one depicted on Collins’ Facebook photos.
The officer walked up the driveway, uncovered the motorcycle, saw that it appeared to be the same orange-and-black motorcycle that eluded him on July 25, and noted the vehicle identification number. Running the VIN through a computer search revealed that the bike had been stolen in New York several years earlier.
Collins initially denied knowing anything about the motorcycle but eventually admitted buying it without a title for $3,500. He was arrested for receiving stolen property. The key to the motorcycle was found in Collins’ pocket.
Before trial, Collin’s lawyer, Charles L. Weber Jr. of Charlottesville, asked the judge to throw out the evidence — the VIN — collected by police because the officer trespassed onto the property and lifted a tarp without a search warrant.
In so doing, Weber argued, police violated Collins’ constitutional protection under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.
The prosecution disagreed, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the automobile exception to the search warrant requirement and that probable cause that a crime had been committed alone justified the warrantless search.
The photographs on Facebook of the motorcycle parked in the same spot seen by the officer that day established probable cause, prosecutors argued.
Weber countered that the automobile exception was not intended for searching for an automobile, but to search inside automobiles spotted on the street and suspected of holding contraband.
“That exception does not apply in this case. That vehicle was parked in a private driveway,” Weber said.
The trial judge denied the suppression motion, finding that there was probable cause for a warrantless search and that it was not an unreasonable governmental intrusion. Collins was convicted and sentenced to three years with all but two months suspended — jail time already served.
The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and search. In a dissenting opinion, Justice William C. Mims wrote that he would have required a warrant.
Fitzgerald, who will argue the case for the defense, is a partner at McGuireWoods and co-chairman of its appeals and issues group. He was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from the summer of 2010 to the summer of 2011 but has never argued a case at the high court.
He and a colleague at the law firm, Travis Gunn, are working pro bono on the case with Weber.
Fitzgerald said, “We found this case after the decision in the Supreme Court of Virginia. We read the decision ... and we thought that it looked interesting, that it might be the sort of thing the U.S. Supreme Court might be interested in.
“It is really exciting. I clerked there, so I’ve seen a lot of arguments in the Supreme Court and they’re really fast-paced and the audience is large and, of course, I’ve not done it before. I’m just excited at the opportunity.”
Weber, a retired Navy aviator turned lawyer, has practiced in Charlottesville for 19 years. He said he will also be at the U.S. Supreme Court but that Fitzgerald will be doing the arguing.
“I’m very excited. This is my first time up there. I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping we can walk away with a good ruling,” Weber said.
The case is an important one, Fitzgerald said.
“If the state prevails in this case, then that means officers do not need a warrant, ever, to search your car no matter where they find it — even if it’s in your garage at your house, even if it’s in your carport, even if it’s your driveway right up against your house,” he said.
He said, “People have a right against unreasonable searches and seizures and the way that has been protected has been by requiring a neutral magistrate to agree that there is probable cause.”
But in a brief to the justices, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office argues, “The automobile exception plainly applies here. (The officer) had probable cause to believe that the motorcycle in the driveway was stolen and had been used twice to elude police.”
“The tarp could be removed and the motorcycle kicked into gear within seconds. The motorcycle had been used to elude police at speeds exceeding 140 mph,” the attorney general wrote.
The state argued that the motorcycle’s location in the driveway makes no constitutional difference. There was ready access to the street and the exception turns on the inherent mobility of a vehicle.
“Fears of roving police searches are not justified: a warrantless automobile search must be supported by probable cause, limited in scope, and reasonable,” the state argues.