A pending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will have big implications for Americans and their Fourth Amendment rights, says a civil liberties attorney.
The case Collins v. Virginia was argued before the high court on Jan. 9, putting the issue of a warrantless search before the justices more than four years after a Virginia police officer lifted a tarp at a home and discovered a stolen motorcycle that had eluded law enforcement in a chase.
The case is testing the "automobile exception" in which courts have been more lenient toward automobile searches than a person's home and property.
Collins v. Virginia is testing that "automobile exception" because the automobile is located right next to the home, Matthew Fitzgerald, a Richmond attorney who argued the case last week, told a Richmond newspaper.
John Whitehead, an attorney who advocates for civil liberties, says the attorneys did a good job of arguing that a law enforcement officer, without a warrant, cannot enter a person's front yard and begin searching.
"Because, if you do that," says Whitehead, "there is no Fourth Amendment."
A ruling from the court is expected in June.
Whitehead and Rutherford Institute added a legal brief to the case that insists law enforcement must have a warrant signed before a judge before they come to your front door and knock on it.
In some tragic cases, he says, people have been shot after going outside armed with a gun after hearing what they presume are burglars. But it's actually a police officer on their property – with their own gun.
"That's why you have a Fourth Amendment," he continues. "It makes police slow down, collect their evidence, then go peacefully to the residence, knock on the door, and make sure they have the right person."
Whitehead insists that process was not followed in this Virginia case, where law enforcement authorities used a Facebook photo to track the stolen motorcycle to a home in Charlottesville.
The case immediately kicked off a legal debate over probable cause and search warrants in the local courtroom, and the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the officer's initial search.
Whitehead, however, is a longtime advocate for Fourth Amendment rights along with repeated warnings of a "police state" with too much authority.
"In my opinion, it would allow the police to do whatever they want to do," Whitehead says about a potential Supreme Court ruling in the police's favor. "You don't even own your property if they can do that."
OneNewsNow contacted law enforcement authorities in Albemarle County but did not receive comment by press time.