The United States Supreme Court issued rulings in three cases on Tuesday, May 29. There are still about thirty cases they need to decide before they break for summer recess on June 25th. All the cases for this term have been argued – they merely await the Justices’ rulings, and each day the Court’s calendar shows they hold “Non-argument Days,” we await our new laws as they are handed down from any five of the Justices who agree.
In City of Hays v. Vogt, the court did something unusual. They unanimously said, we will not actually be issuing a decision on this case after all. The actual single sentence the high Court used, which served as an order rather than an opinion, was: “Certiorari dismissed as improvidently granted.” Certiorari is what the court grants petitioners who wish to have their lower court cases heard at the Supreme Court. Here they dismissed the certiorari grant after initially granting it. That’s known as a “DIG” in Supreme Court lexicon. As you may imagine, this is incredibly frustrating to the parties who have spent a small fortune in time, money, and energy getting the case before the Court in the first place.
Why a dig in this case? Let’s turn to Scotusblog’s Rory Little for his thoughts:
[I]t seems likely that some decisional disposition was tentatively advanced, and that memos were then traded among the justices advancing very different substantive positions. It might even be that a potential opinion or two were circulated, only to be met with a response from Breyer detailing all the reasons why the case was a flawed vehicle for deciding important constitutional doctrine. But after further reflection, rather than render opinions in a case in which the constitutional issues were at best dimly perceived at the certiorari stage and make sweeping pronouncements based on dubious factual assumptions, the justices found that they could agree on one thing: This case was an “improvident” vehicle and should be sent back to the messy litigation muck from whence it came.
In Collins v. Virginia, the Court held 8-1 that while there are some automobile exceptions to the requirement that police obtain a warrant before engaging in a search, those exceptions do not allow warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage (the area immediately surrounding it), to search an automobile.
Police in Albemarle County, Virginia were frustrated by a motorcyclist who repeatedly and successfully fled during high-speed maneuvers (140 mph+), evading arrest. While the rider’s helmet concealed his identity, police had some suspicion who the guilty party was. They stalked Collins’ social media pages, and after seeing a house with a covered motorcycle, paid a visit. They then walked, without permission, to the side of the house where the motorcycle was covered with a tarp, removed it, and ran the Vehicle Identification Number, determining the Suzuki was stolen. Police charged Collins with possession, but he challenges the conviction on the grounds that the evidence police collected was illegally obtained and therefore must be thrown out.
The lower court ruled the evidence admissible under the vehicle exception to the Fourth Amendment. That exception was written not by James Madison, but by the Supreme Court in 1925, to ease police searches during prohibition. It says that given the mobile nature of automobiles, police are not bound by the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment when searching them. Collins says that may be fine for vehicles on the side of the road, but this vehicle was on private property up on the side of the house and covered, which makes it less like a vehicle for Fourth Amendment analysis purposes, and more like any other property, which requires a warrant to search.
Eight Justices agreed with Collins. Justice Sotomayor wrote the decision in which all her fellow Justices agreed, all except Justice Alito. Alito claims, “[t]he Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable” searches. What the police did in this case was entirely reasonable. The Court’s decision is not.”
Justice Thomas wrote separately. While he agreed with the majority decision, he wrote to criticize the exclusionary rule itself, and its imposition by federal courts onto state courts:
In sum, I am skeptical of this Court’s authority to impose the exclusionary rule on the States. We have not yet revisited that question in light of our modern precedents, which reject Mapp’s essential premise that the exclusionary rule is required by the Constitution. We should do so.
In Lagos v. United States, the Court ruled unanimously on a technical statutory interpretation. It held in relevant part:
18 U. S. C. §3663A(b)(4), the words “investigation” and “proceedings” are limited to government investigations and criminal proceedings and do not include private investigations and civil or bankruptcy proceedings.
That’s not a case that will impact many people, but the Justices are final arbiters of Congress’ lawmaking hash in matters banal as well as existential.