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U.S. Supreme Court limits Fourth Amendment vehicle exception

The Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable search and seizure, but police officers in Ohio and around the country are permitted to conduct warrantless searches in certain situations. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1925 that police could search a motor vehicle without first obtaining a search warrant provided they have probable cause to believe that evidence of criminal activity will be discovered. The nation's highest court issued another ruling on May 29 that clarified the scope of this exception.

The case involved a Virginia man who was convicted of receiving stolen property after police discovered a motorcycle at a Charlottesville residence. The man appealed his conviction because the police officers involved did not obtain a search warrant. Police found the motorcycle parked just a few feet from the residence and covered with a tarpaulin. Officers made the discovery while looking for a motorcycle that had been used to evade law enforcement on two occasions.

With an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the motor vehicle exception did not extend to vehicles parked on private property. The area immediately surrounding a residence is known as curtilage in legal proceedings, and warrants must generally be obtained before it can be searched. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on behalf of the majority and Justice Samuel Alito cast the only dissenting vote.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys are likely to pay particular attention to police reports when important evidence is discovered during police searches, and they may sometimes seek to have this evidence suppressed even when search warrants have been granted. Judges take constitutional protections seriously, and they often restrict the scope of search warrants to particular areas or specific items such as a gun or evidence of ongoing drug sales. When police officers stray beyond these boundaries, attorneys may argue that the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment have been violated and the evidence discovered should not be used against their clients.

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