Nevertheless, the doctrine is still a core part of Fourth Amendment case law, even as phones became mobile supercomputers over the past 15 years. This incongruity hasn’t gone unnoticed by scholars and judges. In United States v. Jones, a 2012 case in which the Court ruled that warrantless GPS tracking violates the Fourth Amendment, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a concurrence that the doctrine was “ill-suited” for modern life.
Whatever ruling the Court hands down in the case will shape the legal implications of new technologies for years to come. Carpenter revolves around cellphones, but in a digital age where even coffeemakers and alarm clocks can swap data with their manufacturers, its implications will be vast. Joh pointed to the autonomous car, which is under development in Silicon Valley and could be in mass production in the next decade.
“When you think about it, that’s just another giant, quasi-voluntary transmission of information you’re going to be providing to Tesla or whatever company,” she said. “Is that going to be a case where the police will say, ‘Well, we don’t need a warrant because the driver decided to give all that information to Tesla or another carmaker?’” The Court’s ruling in Carpenter, she added, “will provide an answer, one way or another, to what I think is going to be a very important question.”
When Can Cops Search a Person’s Car?
The Court added two more Fourth Amendment cases in its first orders of the new term on Thursday, both of which involve automobile searches. Generally speaking, courts have long ruled that drivers have a reduced expectation of privacy when they’re traveling by car. As a result, officers typically don’t need a warrant to execute a search of a car so long as they have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime. The Supreme Court traditionally interprets “automobile” to broadly include vehicles like trucks, motor homes, motorcycles, and so forth.
In Collins v. Virginia, the Court will ponder whether the automobile exception applies to an unoccupied vehicle parked in a person’s driveway. An officer in Virginia approached the house of petitioner Ryan Collins’s girlfriend in 2013 while investigating a motorcyclist who’d eluded him and his partner in two high-speed chases. They believed Collins to be responsible. Sitting in the driveway behind a car they saw a motorcycle covered by a tarp. The officer walked onto the property, lifted the tarp, and ran the vehicle identification number, which matched that of a stolen bike from New York.
Officers then arrested Collins for possessing stolen goods. At trial, he asked the court to suppress evidence taken during the officer’s trespass onto the property, arguing it went beyond the automobile exception’s limits. The trial court, the Virginia Court of Appeals, and the Virginia Supreme Court all disagreed with the request and ruled that the exception applies on private property. If the U.S. Supreme Court follows that pattern, it would give police officers broader leeway to search cars, trucks, and other vehicles on private property for evidence of a crime.