SCOTUS News, June 1st, 2018: The Curtilage Question

Another slow-ish week from the Supreme Court. The Justices released only two more opinions, while dismissing a third case from the docket.

Lagos v. US

Petitioner Lagos pleaded guilty to wire fraud in a complex scheme to defraud GE of tens of millions of dollars. GE conducted a private investigation of Lagos, after which the government indicted Lagos. The government also ordered Lagos to pay GE restitution both for their private investigation, and the expenses resulting from their participation in Lagos’ bankruptcy proceedings. Lagos petitioned for certiorari.

The Mandatory Victims Restitution Act (MVRA) requires reimbursement to crime victims for expenses “incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense or attendance at proceedings related to the offense.” The question before SCOTUS is whether the MVRA includes investigations conducted by private entities, and non-criminal proceedings like Lagos’ bankruptcy proceedings in which GE participated.

SCOTUS rules unanimously in favor of Lagos, reversing the lower court ruling and remanding the case. The MVRA was written to provide restitution to victims who participate in criminal prosecutions, and criminal proceedings. The statute’s language makes it clear that it does not extend to noncriminal proceedings or to private investigations. The usage of “participation”, “prosecution”, and “attendance at proceedings” all imply litigation in which the government takes the lead, not private actors. This distinction applies even if, as in this case, GE provided the government with the findings from its private investigation.

In addition, Breyer writes for the unanimous Court, a broader interpretation of the statute would be overly burdensome. The phrase “necessary proceedings” is particularly problematic. Who decides what proceedings are necessary? That ambiguity only highlights another problem: plenty of other statutes use more precise language to provide for reimbursement and restitution. The MVRA was clearly written with government prosecutions in mind.

Collins v. Virginia

Petitioner Collins committed some traffic violations while riding a motorcycle. After conducting an internet search, police discovered that Collins was the likely owner of the motorcycle in question. An officer went to Collins’ house, and saw a motorcycle underneath a tarp in the driveway. He looked under the tarp to confirm his suspicion, and then arrested Collins when Collins returned home. At trial, Collins attempted to suppress this evidence as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not apply, Collins argued, because the police officer violated the property’s curtilage in order to find the evidence. The trial court denied Collins’ motion to suppress, and all other lower courts affirmed this denial.

But SCOTUS reverses. In a nearly unanimous decision, SCOTUS clarifies the meaning of the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment. The automobile exception carves out a place for warrantless searches of vehicles because vehicles are easily moved. In this case, however, the automobile exception butts up against another significant aspect of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: the sanctity of a home’s curtilage. The meaning of “curtilage” has some variability, but always pertains to the immediate area around a home. Curtilage is considered part of a home for search purposes, and the motorcycle was hidden under a tarp well within the curtilage of Collins’ home. For this reason, SCOTUS rules, the motorcycle under the tarp was subject to the same Fourth Amendment protections as the interior of the house itself.

Writing for the majority, Sotomayor proposes a simple hypothetical to prove the point. If the motorcycle had been parked in Collins’ living room, the officer would not have been allowed to enter the living room to search the motorcycle. As far as a Fourth Amendment search is concerned, the house’s curtilage is no different from its living room.

Virginia offered an alternate curtilage doctrine, but the majority rejects their attempt to rewrite the law. “…creating a carveout to the general rule that curtilage receives Fourth Amendment protection … seems far more likely to create confusion than does uniform application of the Court’s doctrine.”

Thomas, in a separate concurrence, agrees with the Court’s holding that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment here. Thomas takes issue, though, with Collins’ use of the exclusionary rule to suppress the evidence. The exclusionary rule is a modern, mostly post-War invention with no basis in the Constitution. Historically, the remedy for an unconstitutional search was for a party to file a tort claim, rather than a claim based on the constitutional violation itself.

Aside from this caveat from Thomas, he joins the majority for a strong 8-member vote in favor of Collins.

Alito (Dissenting)

Alito disagrees with the majority’s assertion of the extent of the curtilage. He sees the motorcycle falling under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment, just as it would if it had been parked on the street. For this reason, the officer’s warrantless search was justifiable and should not have been suppressed.


The FantasySCOTUS Crowd

The Crowd nailed it this week, with a perfect Justice score across the two cases. They expertly picked Alito out of the conservatives for his lone dissent in Collins.

collins virginia curtilage

Collins v. Virginia

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