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Can the Police Search My Garage Without a Warrant?

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NH Search of Garages – Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision in Collins v. Virginia, a case that asked the Court to tell us whether the police could snoop around your garage so long as someone had parked a car inside. That seems somewhat basic, but that’s what happened. Mr. Collins had a motorcycle parked in an open garage and covered by a tarp. The police had reason to believe that the motorcycle was stolen, but needed to run the plate and VIN. Instead of asking a judge for a warrant, an officer in Virginia assigned to the case decided simply to walk up the thirty-foot driveway, into the garage, and take the tarp off the bike. He ran the plate and VIN and sure enough, it was stolen.

What is Curtilage?

The fight, in this case, was over the treatment of “curtilage.” Both the N.H. and U.S. constitutions treat the home as a private space, but that includes “curtilage” as well – this is the area surrounding the home that is used for the same purposes. No one contested that a garage counted as curtilage, but the prosecution wanted to treat it a little differently. Namely, they wanted the Court to say that the police could rely on the “automobile exception” when there is a car in the curtilage of the home, even though it generally could not do so when there is a car in the home itself.

Automobile Exception

The automobile exception is a rule that allows the police to search your car without a warrant so long as it’s on a public road. The prosecution argument essentially boiled down to: “if we don’t need a warrant to search a car parked at the street, why should we need a warrant to search a motorcycle only thirty feet away?” All but one justice gave a good answer: because we care about the Constitution. The majority said that before the prosecution gets to rely on the automobile exception, they have to justify the initial intrusion into private space; here, the garage. The garage isn’t the car, so we can’t rely on the automobile exception to get into the garage. The Court’s decision re-affirms that when state and federal constitutions draw hard lines between public and private spaces, those lines will be honored.

This is an extremely important decision in New Hampshire because not long ago our own State Supreme Court issued a decision that gave the police much more leeway in searching for your car. For decades, any automobile was treated much the same way as a house – if there is something inside the car that the police wanted to get, they would have to get a warrant. After State v. Cora, however, the police can go into your car without a warrant to take any contraband that they can see in the course of a lawful traffic stop. If Collins v. Virginia were to be decided differently, there would have been growing concern that our State Supreme Court would continue to chip away at the rights of drivers. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision has placed a limit on how deep the police can come inside your personal space without a neutral third party deeming it justified.

The law of searches and seizures can be hard to follow. Get an attorney with the experience to challenge police practices at your trial. To get started, call Jared Bedrick at Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C., (603) 288-1403 or fill out our online contact form.