The Fourth Amendment gives you the right to go about without the constant threat of a police search. One area that often presents confusion in criminal cases is when and where the police have the right to search your vehicle without first getting a warrant.
If you are driving along and the police pull you over, they can search your vehicle without needing a warrant if they have probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a crime inside. Yet what about if officers are driving past your house and see your vehicle unlocked on the driveway? Can they come onto your drive and search your car?
The police need a warrant to search a vehicle within your property’s curtilage
You probably know that the police cannot enter your home without permission. The front door provides a clear boundary they cannot cross without a warrant, or your consent, except in exceptional circumstances such as because they are pursuing a criminal. Yet, your property may extend beyond your front door. What then?
Typically, the law has considered that the protection afforded you inside your front door extends to your curtilage, meaning the area you own immediately surrounding your house. The larger your property, the harder this may be to define. However, many considered that vehicles were exempt from this protection.
In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled against police who had gone onto someone’s driveway and found a stolen vehicle under a tarp. The court ruled that the police should have sought a warrant first if they wished to enter the driveway. In other words, they decided that a vehicle on your driveway is within your property’s curtilage.
If you face criminal charges based on evidence the police found in a search, it is crucial to be clear whether or not they had the right to search. If you can show they did not, a court may declare the evidence they collected inadmissible.