Friday, June 1st, 2018

This Week’s Supreme Court Opinions

This week the Supreme Court issued two opinions, both of which seem relatively straightforward in their holdings.

In Collins v. Virginia, the Court held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit a warrantless search of a vehicle parked within the curtilage of a home. In Collins, police officers tracked a stolen vehicle to the address of the defendant’s girlfriend. There, parked in the driveway, an officer saw what appeared to be a motorcycle frame covered with a white tarp. The officer entered the driveway, uncovered the tarp, and confirmed that it was the stolen motorcycle.

Justice Sotomayor’s opinion, for an eight-member majority, is clear in its language and broad in its scope. The opinion swiftly concludes that the part of the driveway on which the motorcycle was parked was curtilage.  That portion of the driveway was enclosed on three sides, but open to the street.  Relying on Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013), the Court determined this part of the driveway to be curtilage. Moreover, it did so without so much as mentioning the factors used in United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294, 297 (1987), to make curtilage determinations. In taking this approach, the Court wholly vindicates the Second Circuit’s recent holding in United States v. Alexander, No. 16-3708 (2d Cir. 2018), that driveways and other publicly accessible areas can be curtilage.

From there, the Court treats Collins as an “easy case.” Slip op. at 7. The State of Virginia argued that “the automobile exception permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime, anywhere, including the home or curtilage.” Id. at 11. Rejecting this argument, the Court confirmed that “the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.” Id. This exception does not authorize officers to enter a home to search a vehicle without a warrant. Curtilage is “‘part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.” Id. at 5 (quoting Jardines, 569 U.S. at 6). Expanding the automobile exception to spaces protected by the Fourth Amendment–including the home and its curtilage–“would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and untether the automobile exception from the justifications underlying.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). Therefore, the warrantless search of the driveway violated the Fourth Amendment. Done.

Well, not completely done: the Court also made short work of Virginia’s argument that the automobile exception should extend to parts of the home that are not within “the physical threshold of a house or a similar fixed, enclosed structure inside the curtilage like a garage.” Id. at 13.  The Court explained that such a bright-line rule is not only unnecessary, but would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages in which to store their vehicles but deprive those persons without such resources of any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage.” Id. at 14.

Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, expressing skepticism that the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule binds States. Justice Alito wrote a rabid six-page dissent, in which he accuses the Court of defying common sense.

Analysis of the Supreme Court’s other cases this week comes courtesy of Sentencing Resource Counsel Sissy Phleger. Note that the Court’s opinion in Lagos v. United States abrogates Second Circuit case law concerning the scope of the MVRA.

Lagos v. United StatesMandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA)

Justice Breyer wrote a brief opinion for a unanimous Court in Lagos v. United States. Lagos concerned the scope of the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act’s (18 U.S.C. § 3663A) requirement that restitution be ordered to victims for spending and losses “incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense or attendance at proceedings related to the offense.” Petitioner Lagos objected to his restitution including compensation for his corporate victim’s private investigation and participation in Lagos’s bankruptcy proceedings. The Court agreed, holding that “investigations and proceedings are limited to government investigations and criminal proceedings.” The Court focused primarily on a textual parsing of the statute, and rebuffed the government’s argument that a broad reading was necessary to protect victims, and to fulfill the statutory purpose. The Court expressed concern that a broader reading would be burdensome to administer—requiring district courts in every case to engage in difficult line drawing regarding the necessity and/or relatedness of expenses listed for MVRA reimbursement. The Court saw this exercise as particularly problematic in light of the futility of most restitution orders—citing statistics demonstrating that 90% of restitution awards are never collected.The issue had been the subject of a circuit split.

The Court sided with the DC Circuit, rejecting contrary holdings from the Second, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Circuits. Compare United States v. Papagno, 639 F. 3d 1093, 1100 (D.C. Cir. 2011); with United States v. Amato, 540 F. 3d 153, 159–163 (2d Cir. 2008); United States v. Elson, 577 F. 3d 713, 726–729 (6th Cir. 2009); United States v. Hosking, 567 F. 3d 329, 331–332 (7th Cir. 2009); United States v. Stennis-Williams, 557 F. 3d 927, 930 (8th Cir. 2009); United States v. Gordon, 393 F. 3d 1044, 1056–1057 (9th Cir. 2004).

Hays v. Vogt–Dismissed as improvidently granted

Finally, the Court dismissed as improvidently granted (DIG’ed) the Fifth Amendment case City of Hays v. Vogt. The case was intended as a challenge to the Tenth Circuit’s holding that the 5th Amendment barred used of compelled statement at a probable cause hearing as well as at trial. The case was procedurally messy and factually underdeveloped—it arrived as a civil case challenging collateral employment consequences of a since-abandoned criminal prosecution—and the government-petitioner’s argument and cert issue drifted from the cert stage to merits stage. The case signals a potential area of interest, and intense disagreement, for the Court. As Rory Little commented for SCOTUSblog, “now that their interest is roused, one imagines they will be keeping their eyes out for a ‘clean’ cert petition presenting some of the same questions.”

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