U.S. top court considers putting brakes on police vehicle searches

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday wrestled with the scope of police authority to search vehicles without warrants, with Chief Justice John Roberts referencing the shiny red convertible taken for a joyride in the 1986 comedy film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to make a serious legal point.

FILE PHOTO: The top of U.S. Supreme Court building is lit at dusk in Washington, U.S., December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

The justices heard arguments in two cases in which convicted defendants are seeking to have key evidence against them thrown out because it was obtained by police officers through vehicle searches conducted without a court-issued warrant.

One case involved a stolen motorcycle that was covered by a tarpaulin and parked on private property next to a house in Charlottesville, Virginia. The other involved a rental car stopped by police in Pennsylvania - driven by a man who was not named on the agreement with the rental agency - in which heroin was found.

At issue is whether police in the two cases violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the motorcycle case, Roberts and other justices seemed concerned about issuing a broad ruling in favor of law enforcement that would let police officers not just inspect the immediate area outside a property without a warrant but also potentially inside a house if a vehicle is located there. Under the Fourth Amendment, police need a warrant to search a house unless there is an emergency situation.

In the case of convicted defendant Ryan Collins, the motorcycle was a few feet from the house. In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” starring Matthew Broderick, three teenagers skip school and take a ride in a red Ferrari that was parked inside a showroom-type space apparently attached to a house.

After mentioning the film’s car, Roberts asked Trevor Cox, the state of Virginia’s lawyer who was defending the police search, whether he was arguing that police “can just go in” to a house without a warrant because a car is “mobile and they got it in there somehow (so) they can get it out.”

Roberts also mentioned comedian Jay Leno, known for storing a large collection of cars.

Other justices voiced similar concerns, including Neil Gorsuch, who seemed troubled about police officers being able to search garages and other outbuildings without a warrant.

“Not many people live in their garage. Some people do, some people do, and in barns, but usually they’re reserved for cars and for animals. And you’re suggesting that in those places the police can search without a warrant,” Gorsuch told Cox.

Cox said existing legal precedent allowing police to search vehicles without a warrant when they have probable cause should extend to vehicles kept on private property, potentially including those kept in garages, although he said the court could exclude “dwellings.”

Police were looking for the driver of the motorcycle who had on two occasions evaded police pursuit. It turned out to be Collins, who was later convicted of receiving stolen property.

The second case involved a defendant named Terrence Byrd who was stopped by police in 2014 while driving a car his girlfriend had rented. Police said they could search the car without his consent because he was not listed on the rental agreement. The officers found heroin and a bulletproof vest in the car.

Byrd pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of both items on condition that he could challenge the search.

Justice Stephen Breyer appeared to support a ruling that would prohibit a warrantless search in such a case if the driver has the permission of the person named in the rental agreement to use a vehicle as long the driver did not commit a crime in taking possession of the car.

Rulings in both cases are due by the end of June.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham