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Supreme Court to hear case involving automobile search exception

Search warrants are generally required when police officers search your property -- unless a specific exception applies. In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court carved out a major exception to the search warrant requirement in a case called Carroll v. United States. It created the "automobile exception" or "motor vehicle exception," which essentially allows any motor vehicle to be searched without a warrant as long as the officer has probable cause to believe that evidence or contraband will be found in that vehicle.

When a police officer went onto a suspect's driveway and lifted a tarp covering what appeared to be a motorcycle, did he search the motorcycle? Or would it be more proper to say he searched the driveway, or under the tarp? Does the motor vehicle exception apply in such a situation?

That seems to be the question that today's Supreme Court has decided to answer. It arises in the appeal of a Virginia man's conviction for receiving stolen property.

The case of the stolen motorcycle began when police spotted a speeding motorcyclist on two occasions. He was riding an orange-and-black Suzuki motorcycle and, on each occasion, he sped away too quickly for police to follow. On the second encounter, however, a police officer caught the license plate number.

That plate number led police to a man who said he had sold the motorcycle to the defendant -- after warning him that it was stolen.

The police caught a break a couple of months later when the defendant was spotted at the DMV trying to register a car. An officer questioned him and he denied any knowledge of the motorcycle. A search of his Facebook page, however, yielded a photograph of an orange-and-black Suzuki motorcycle next to the car he had been trying to register.

That photo also led police to the man's home. There, an officer spotted what appeared to be a motorcycle under a tarp. Without a warrant, the officer entered the property and looked under the tarp. The license plate and a VIN search confirmed the motorcycle was the one they sought.

The defendant was convicted of receiving stolen property and sentenced to three years behind bars. He appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which affirmed his conviction.

One dissenting judge, however, pointed out that the motor vehicle exception to the warrant requirement really didn't apply because the police hadn't actually searched the vehicle. In reality, they had searched for the vehicle under a tarp on the defendant's land.

Is that distinction enough? Should the police have been required to get a warrant before entering the defendant's property to search for the allegedly stolen motorcycle? The U.S. Supreme Court will decide.

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