timberland earthkeepers Albemarle case over warrantless search heads to high court

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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 after an officer who suspected it was stolen, and had eluded two police chases, walked onto private property and removed a tarp covering the bike without a search warrant.

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. 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 all began in the summer of 2013 when officers with the Albemarle County Police Department twice attempted to catch and stop and 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 was the one 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 that the house in the Facebook photographs was located in the city of Charlottesville, near the Albemarle County 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,
timberland earthkeepers Albemarle case over warrantless search heads to high court
uncovered the motorcycle, saw that it appeared to be the same orange and black motorcycle that eluded him on July 25, 2013, 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 charged with receiving stolen property. Weber Jr., of Charlottesville, asked the judge to throw out the evidence the vehicle identification number collected by police, arguing that 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. 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 Facebook photographs 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.
timberland earthkeepers Albemarle case over warrantless search heads to high court