The court ruled 8 to 1 that even though there is precedent for police to search a vehicle without a warrant, that does not trump other decisions that say a home and its surrounding areas - curtilage, the court calls it - enjoy the ultimate protection from government intrusion.
To allow police to use the automobile exception to forgo getting a warrant would "render hollow the core Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.
The court was considering the case of Ryan Collins of Charlottesville, Virginia.
The driver of a distinctive orange-and-black motorcycle had led Albemarle County, Virginia, police officers on two chases. The department came to believe the motorcycle was stolen and in the possession of Collins. His Facebook profile showed such a motorcycle parked at the top of a driveway at a house where he stayed several nights per week.
Officer David Rhodes went to the address, where he observed from the street what appeared to be a motorcycle at the end of the driveway, covered by a tarp. He walked up, determined that it was the motorcycle in question and waited for Collins to return to the house.
Collins said that the vehicle was his and that he had bought it without a title. He was arrested and indicted on a charge of receiving stolen property.
Collins tried to suppress the evidence against him, saying it was improperly obtained by the warrantless search. Eventually, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, saying that the search was proper because of precedent allowing greater leeway for police with probable cause to search vehicles.
But Sotomayor wrote: "Nothing in our case law . . . suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant."
The fact that the cycle was visible from the street doesn't change the rule, she wrote.
Imagine a motorcycle parked in a living room visible through a window to a passerby and police, she said. "Can the officer, acting without a warrant, enter the house to search the motorcycle and confirm whether it is the right one? Surely not."
Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter, saying the police officer's action was "entirely reasonable."
"If the motorcycle had been parked at the curb, instead of in the driveway, it is undisputed that Rhodes could have searched it without obtaining a warrant,' Alito wrote.
He conjured a Charles Dickens character from "Oliver Twist": "An ordinary person of common sense would react to the Court's decision the way Mr. Bumble famously responded when told about a legal rule that did not comport with the reality of everyday life. If that is the law, he exclaimed, 'the law is a ass - a idiot.' "
Sotomayor rejected Virginia's proposed rule that it would make a difference whether the object is visible from the street.
That would be unfair, she wrote, favoring those who could afford fully enclosed garages over those who had carports. She cited a Supreme Court decision from 1982: "The most frail cottage in the kingdom is absolutely entitled to the same guarantees of privacy as the most majestic mansion."
The case is Collins v. Virginia.