If you look under a tarp for what appears to be a motorcycle, have you searched the motorcycle? Or have you searched the tarp?
That question may be central to the appeal of a warrantless search meant to find a motorcycle that had been stolen years earlier from New York. Police in Virginia apparently spent a great deal of time and energy chasing down that motorcycle and its rider.
The case began during a routine patrol in 2013. A police officer tried to pull over an orange-and-black Suzuki motorcycle, but the rider sped away. About six weeks later, another officer noticed what appeared to be the same motorcycle traveling at 100 mph in a 55 mph zone — and then speeding up to 140 mph in order to evade the officer.
That second officer got the license plate number, which led the investigation to the last person who had registered the cycle. That man admitted having sold the motorcycle to the defendant after warning him that it was stolen.
A couple of months later, the defendant was attempting to register an Acura at the DMV when he aroused suspicion. The suspicion turned out to be unfounded, but the police arrived and accused him of being the elusive motorcyclist. He denied knowing anything about the bike, but officers found a photo of it on the defendant’s Facebook page — right next to the Acura he had been trying to register.
This photo and help from an informant led the police to the defendant’s home. There, an officer noticed what appeared to be a motorcycle in the driveway, covered by a tarp.
At this point, there was no concrete indication that the bike was the orange-and-black Suzuki in question — until the officer lifted the tarp and checked the bike’s appearance and VIN.
The defendant was convicted of receiving stolen property and sentenced to three years in prison. He appealed that conviction to the Virginia Court of Appeals, claiming that the police should not have lifted the tarp on the man’s property without first obtaining a search warrant.
Search warrants are generally required unless there is a legal exception. In this case, the appellate court ruled that the so-called “automobile exception” applied, meaning that no search warrant was required. Instead, what was required was probable cause to believe the stolen motorcycle would be found there. The automobile exception essentially allows any motor vehicle to be searched without a warrant as long as there is probable cause.
One judge dissented, claiming that it was not the motor vehicle that was searched but rather the tarp — so the automobile exception does not apply. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.