Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry

Case focus for U.S. Supreme Court: standard for vehicle searches

The constitutional lines have long been drawn -- in fact, are centuries old -- concerning the manner in which police can enter a home in a criminal case in Missouri or elsewhere.

Generally speaking, entry to ask questions and/or conduct a search for incriminating evidence must be justified in advance by officers' so-called "probable cause" denoting that something is unlawfully amiss. That is, there must be some reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has occurred or is ongoing.

If that prong is satisfied, law enforcers should then proceed to a neutral magistrate to secure a search warrant.

Of course, there are real-life exceptions to the drill, but they are extremely limited where a home is concerned (e.g., fear of imminent violence or the destruction of evidence).

An automobile is a different matter. That is duly noted in a recent article on an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court that will consider an individual's arrest and criminal conviction following a warrantless police search of a motorcycle draped under tarp on private property next to a house.

The defendant in that case has failed to prevail twice in his argument stressing unconstitutional search.

A trial judge first denied his motion to suppress evidence revealing that the bike was stolen and had been involved in high-speed chases.

And then the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the lower court, finding that probable cause to search was present and that the automobile warrantless search exception applied, given the potential for the bike's quick removal.

The stakes are high, notes a defense attorney. He states that a win for the state would mean that police officers would never need a warrant to search a vehicle … "even if it's in your driveway right up against your house."

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