When Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, some court observers were concerned that the former prosecutor would be deferential toward law enforcement.

When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, Sotomayor, the first Hispanic member of the court, is anything but pro-prosecution.

That trend continued this week when Justice Sotomayor authored an opinion for the high court barring the police from coming on private property without a warrant to search a motorcycle.

Historically, Sotomayor has been a stalwart supporter of the Fourth Amendment. She issued a fiery dissent in a Utah case where a man challenged his arrest based on a stop that was, in part, racially motivated.

“It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny,” wrote Sotomayor. “For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ — instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger — all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”

During oral argument in another Fourth Amendment case, Sotomayor grilled a justice department lawyer who insisted that police officers be granted wide latitude to employ drug-sniffing dogs during traffic stops. “We can’t keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement,” said Sotomayor. “What you’re proposing,” continued Sotomayor according to Reason Magazine, is an approach that’s “purely to help the police get more criminals, yes. But then the Fourth Amendment becomes a useless piece of paper.”

In the case decided this week, the police in Virginia were investigating traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle. The police learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in Ryan Collins’ possession. From the street the police could see what appeared to be a motorcycle under a tarp on Collins’ property.

Without a search warrant, a police officer walked up the driveway, removed the tarp and confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen by running the license plate and vehicle identification numbers. Collins was arrested when he returned home.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment — which allows the police to search vehicles on public streets without a warrant — also allows the police to search a vehicle parked in the area near a house or on the area immediately surrounding the home.

The Court ruled 8-1 that the automobile exception did not apply. Sotomayor writing for the court announced, “In physically intruding on ... (the) home to search the motorcycle” the officer “not only invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the item searched, i.e., the motorcycle, but also invaded Collins’ Fourth Amendment interest in the curtilage (area immediately surrounding) his home.”

“To allow an officer to rely on the automobile exception to gain entry to a house or its curtilage for the purpose of conducting a vehicle search would unmoor the exception from its justifications, render hollow the 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.”

The Fourth Amendment was part of the Bill of Rights that were added to the Constitution in 1791. In its simplest form the Fourth Amendment protects the people from an overzealous government. It was important to the founding fathers over two-and-a-quarter centuries ago and it is important today. The Fourth Amendment needs a defender and it has a fierce one in Sotomayor.

____

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.