By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday put restrictions on police searches of vehicles for the second time this month, ruling in a Virginia case involving a stolen motorcycle that officers generally cannot search a vehicle on private property without a warrant.
The 8-1 decision called into question evidence police obtained from a motorcycle search that was used to convict defendant Ryan Collins of receiving stolen property. The case will return to lower courts to determine if the police had other lawful grounds for entering the property without a court-approved warrant.
The stolen motorcycle was covered by a tarpaulin and parked on private property next to a house in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Supreme Court in another ruling on May 14 limited the ability of police to search rental cars driven by someone other than the person who signed the rental agreement.
At issue in Tuesday's ruling was whether police violated the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, by failing to obtain a warrant before conducting the search.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on behalf of the court that Supreme Court precedent that says warrants are not always required for a vehicle search does not extend to vehicles parked outside a house on private property. Warrants are generally required for the search of a house and the immediate surrounding property, called "curtilage" in legal terminology.
Sotomayor wrote that "searching a vehicle parked in the curtilage involves not only the invasion of the Fourth Amendment interest in the vehicle but also an invasion of the sanctity of the curtilage."
Conservative Samuel Alito, a former prosecutor, was the only justice to dissent, saying the search was "entirely reasonable." He quoted a line from the Charles Dickens classic novel Oliver Twist in which a character called Mr. Bumble complains that "the law is a ass."
In Collins' case, the motorcycle was a few feet from the house. Police were looking for the driver of the motorcycle who had on two occasions evaded police pursuit. It turned out to be Collins, who was later convicted of receiving stolen property.
When the case returns to lower courts, the state can argue that no warrant was required because there were "exigent circumstances" that meant it was not practical for them to obtain one at that time.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)