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Vehicle Search on Curtilage

We have a great question here today from an officer in the great state of Texas.  Alright, so the question is, “Can you search a vehicle on curtilage with exigency?”

And let’s go to the scenario.  The officer is called to a noise complaint.  Upon arrival at a house, he sees a car in the driveway with music blaring.  He smells the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle.

This one was actually unique in the sense that the car had two tires, the rear tires, on the sidewalk, which violates a city ordinance.  But it’s safe to say that the other half of the car is on curtilage.  Okay, we go to the car, we make contact, right?  And can we search the car?  The answer is “YES.”

Here’s why.  Number one is the case, Collins v. Virginia, which is the US Supreme Court case that held that police cannot search a car that’s on curtilage under the motor vehicle exception  alone.  And that is for good reason.  Because when you’re on someone’s curtilage, it’s like being in their home.

The curtilage is treated like the home itself, according to the US Supreme Court in a case called FLORIDA v. JARDINES.  So if you’re going to be on someone’s curtilage, you’ve got to have a damn good reason why you’re there.

Knock and talks work.  But if you’re doing criminal enforcement on people’s curtilage, you better have some exigency, emergency, urgency, or you better have their consent.  But if you don’t have that, you’ve got to go get a warrant.  Under the motor vehicle exception, remember,       if there is no underlying exigency in the car when it’s unoccupied, and nobody’s near it, then you need a warrant.

So that’s why, in Collins vs Virginia, the court said, “The motor vehicle exception will not work.” The car was 100% within curtilage; it was in a carport.

However, exigency in this case is kind of unique, because half the car is on open fields, the sidewalk, and the other half is on curtilage.  So, this one is a little weird.  But even if it was actually fully on the driveway, I still think we win because the noise complaint brings us lawfully into view and next to the car.  We can absolutely go to the car and address the issue.  Then we smell the marijuana.  He’s behind the wheel and we don’t have time to go get a warrant here.

We’re going to be okay.  The court is not going to say that this is unlawful search or seizure. All the parts are lining up pretty nicely with this one.  So that’s what I think.

Again, even if the car was fully on curtilage in the driveway we would be OK.  Now, if it’s in the backyard, that’s a different story.  But if it’s on the driveway, I think we’re good.

That’s all for this one.  Until next time, stay safe.


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