Supreme Court Update: Collins v. Virginia (16-1027), Lagos v. United States (16-1519)

June 1, 2018 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court Fans!

As we continue to await the dropping of the other shoe (filled with 29 pending cases), let's kick two more out of the way.

First up, in Collins v. Virginia (16-1027), The Nine resolved a clash of two well-established Fourth Amendment principles: the so-called automobile exception to the warrant requirement, which allows police to search a vehicle without a warrant as long as they have probable cause to do so; and the treatment of curtilage as part of the home itself.

During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving a really cool orange and black motorcycle, Officer David Rhodes learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and was in possession of Ryan Collins. Putting on his gumshoes, Officer Rhodes logged onto Facebook and discovered a photograph of Collins with an orange and black hog parked in the driveway of a house. Officer Rhodes sped off to the house and saw what appeared what appeared to be the motorcycle in the driveway covered by a white tarp. Although he didn't have a warrant, Officer Rhodes walked up the driveway and took a peek under the tarp, confirmed that the motorcycle beneath it was stole, and took a picture. He then waited in his car for Collins and arrested him when he returned home. Collins moved to suppress the evidence against him on the ground that Officer Rhodes had trespassed on the house's curtilage to conduct his warrantless search, but the trial court denied the motion and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the warrantless search was justified under the Fourth Amendment's automobile exception.

The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the evidence must be excluded. In a lopsided decision authored by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement does not give officers the right to enter the curtilage of a home to conduct a search. The Fourth Amendment's protection of curtilage, according to Sotomayor, "has long been black letter law," and a driveway is considered curtilage because it is "an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends." By searching the motorcycle, Officer Rhodes invaded Collins's Fourth Amendment interest in the motorcycle and his Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage of his home. Contrary to the Virginia Supreme Court's holding, the search was not justified by the automobile exception because the exception only applies if police have the right to access the vehicle in the first place. Since Officer Rhodes had no right to trespass on Collins's driveway to get to the motorcycle, his search was unconstitutional. To hold otherwise, and allow an officer to rely on the automobile exception to enter the curtilage of a home, would "render hollow the core Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage, and transform what was meant to be an exception into a tool with far broader application."

Justice Thomas concurred. While he agreed with the majority decision on the Fourth Amendment issue, he questioned whether the Court had the authority to force Virginia to exclude the evidence of the search. In his view, the exclusionary rule is federal common law, not compelled by the Constitution, so it is not subject to the Supremacy Clause. Although the Court has long applied the exclusionary rule to the states, Thomas insisted that it "has never attempted to justify this assumption" and called for a reevaluation of the rule as applied to the states.

Justice Alito was the lone dissenter. The Fourth Amendment prohibits only "unreasonable" searches and, in Alito's view, Officer Rhodes' search was entirely reasonable. Officer Rhode's stroll up the driveway did Collins no harm because he did not damage any property or observe anything along the way that he could not have seen from the street. Alito also argued that the reasons for the automobile exception are no less valid in this case because Rhodes could have quickly ridden the motorcycle away when he returned home.

Even Justice Alito sided with the defendant in Lagos v. United States (No. 16-1519), a case limiting the scope of the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act (MVRA). In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Breyer, the Court held that the MVRA does not oblige a criminal defendant to reimburse his or her victim for expenses accrued during the victim's own private investigation and participation in civil bankruptcy proceedings related to the crime.

The MVRA is one of several statutes that specifies the circumstances in which defendants convicted of certain federal crimes must pay their victims restitution.

The operative provision directs the defendant to "reimburse the victim for lost income and necessary child care, transportation, and other expenses incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense or attendance at proceedings related to the offense." The question for the Court in this case was whether the words "investigation" and "proceedings" are limited to government investigations and criminal proceedings or whether they extend to private investigation costs and bankruptcy litigation. Specifically, did the MVRA require Petitioner Sergio Fernando Lagos to repay General Electric for the $5 million it spent in professional fees conducting its own investigation into Lagos's fraudulent loan scheme and in its participation in his company's subsequent bankruptcy proceedings.

Justice Breyer's opinion rested principally on a textual analysis of the MVRA. Because "investigation" and "prosecution" are linked by the word "or" and share the article "the," he concluded that the words are of the same general nature. In other words, they refer to criminal investigations and criminal prosecutions. Similarly, the subsequent reference to "proceedings" also refers to criminal proceedings. Applying the noscitur a sociis canon, "the well-worn Latin phrase that tells us that statutory words are often known by the company they keep," he found that the clause describing "other expenses" was necessarily limited by the preceding references to lost income, child care expenses and transportation. While lost income, child care and transportation are the types of expenses a victim would incur when he or she misses work to meet with government investigators, participate in a criminal investigation, testify before a grand jury or attend a criminal trial, they are unrelated to the types of expenses incurred when private investigations or bankruptcy proceedings are at issue. Finally, Breyer pointed out that there are other restitution statutes have a broader scope, including one that requires compensation in certain cases for "the value of the time reasonably spent by the victim in an attempt to remediate the intended or actual harm incurred." If Congress had intended the MVRA to have similarly broad scope, it knew how to send that message.

The Court rejected the Government's argument that even if the "investigation" the statute refers to is confined to criminal investigations, the fact that GE shared some of the information its private investigation uncovered with the prosecution brought those expenses within the criminal scope of the statute. As Breyer pointed out, the text refers to "other expenses incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense," not expenses that were incurred before the investigation. The Court left the door open, therefore, to restitution for private expenses that were incurred at the Government's behest, during a criminal investigation.

That'll do it for this week. Surely we'll have a lot to talk about next week, as it's now officially June. Until then!