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Collins v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

September 15, 2016

RYAN AUSTIN COLLINS
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

         FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

          PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, Powell, and Kelsey, JJ., and Millette, S.J.

          OPINION

          DONALD W. LEMONS CHIEF JUSTICE.

         In this appeal, we consider whether the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the judgment of conviction upon consideration of the trial court's denial of a motion to suppress evidence obtained when police conducted a warrantless search of a stolen motorcycle parked in the driveway of a home where Ryan Austin Collins ("Collins") resided.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         Collins was convicted in the Circuit Court of Albemarle County ("trial court") of receiving stolen property in violation of Code § 18.2-108, and sentenced to three years' imprisonment with all but two months suspended. Prior to trial, Collins moved to suppress the Commonwealth's evidence linking him to a stolen motorcycle. The trial court denied Collins' motion to suppress and held that the police search, although conducted without a warrant, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling and Collins now challenges that decision.

         A. The Eluding Incidents

         On June 4, 2013, Officer Matthew McCall of the Albemarle County Police Department was patrolling on Route 29 near the border of Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville when he observed a traffic infraction by the operator of an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame. Officer McCall activated his emergency lights and attempted to stop the motorcycle, but the motorcycle eluded him at a high rate of speed.

         Several weeks later, on July 25, 2013, Officer David Rhodes, also of the Albemarle Police Department, was in his police car on the Route 250 Bypass when he observed an orange and black motorcycle traveling at 100 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. Officer Rhodes engaged his emergency equipment and pursued the motorcycle. Instead of stopping, the motorcyclist increased his speed to at least 140 mph and sped away from the police car. In the interest of safety, Officer Rhodes abandoned his pursuit. However, Officer Rhodes' police car video camera recorded the incident, and police were able to use this footage to obtain a still photograph of the motorcycle, including its license plates.

         The motorcycle was an orange and black Suzuki with chrome accents and a "stretched out" rear wheel, indicating that it had been modified for drag racing. Officer Rhodes could not identify the driver through the darkly tinted helmet, but he observed that the motorcyclist wore blue jeans and "tan Timberland-type work boots." The motorcyclist who eluded Officer McCall two months earlier also wore jeans and "Timberland-type-style boots." After comparing notes and identifying "an awful lot of similarities" between the two eluding incidents, Officers McCall and Rhodes concluded the same motorcyclist had eluded each of them.

         When Officer Rhodes entered the motorcycle's license plate number in a police database, he discovered that the tags were "not on file" and had been inactive for several years. The license plate was most recently registered to Eric Jones ("Jones"). In the course of his investigation, Officer Rhodes learned that Jones had sold the motorcycle to Collins before the eluding incidents. Later, at trial, Jones testified that he sold Collins the motorcycle in April 2013 with the caveat that the motorcycle lacked title and was stolen.

[COMMONWEALTH'S ATTORNEY]: And so do you know why [the motorcycle] didn't have a title?
[ERIC JONES]: Possibly stolen.
Q: Possibly stolen or you knew it was …
A: Yeah, yeah, it was stolen.
Q: It was stolen[?]
A: Yeah.
Q: And did you at some point then sell it to someone?
A: Yeah.
Q: And who did you sell to?
A: Sold it to Ryan.
Q: And who is Ryan? Do you know his last name?
A: Collins.
Q: All right, and when you sold it to Ryan Collins, did you tell him about the problem with the motorcycle, about it being stolen?
A: Yeah, I did.
Q: And did you talk to him about the fact that it didn't have a title?
A: Yeah.

         B. The Search

         On September 10, 2013, Albemarle Police responded to the Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV") to investigate an unrelated matter[1] involving Collins. Upon hearing Collins' name on the police radio, Officers Rhodes and McCall also responded to the DMV to question Collins since he was a suspect in the motorcycle eluding incidents. Officer McCall advised Collins of his Miranda rights, and Collins agreed to speak to the officers. When questioned about the motorcycle, Collins denied knowing anything about it, and told the officers that he "hadn't ridden a motorcycle in months." Meanwhile, Officer Rhodes searched a social media website (Facebook) and found two photographs posted on Collins' Facebook page depicting the motorcycle which appeared to have been involved in the eluding incidents. The photographs showed the orange and black motorcycle parked in a driveway next to the vehicle Collins was attempting to register at the DMV.

         Officer Rhodes later testified that upon seeing the photographs of the motorcycle on Collins' Facebook page, he "knew 100% sure that . . . was the same motorcycle that had not stopped for me on the bypass based on looking at it. It was very distinct and I knew, absolutely no question in my mind that was the same motorcycle." However, when the officers showed Collins the Facebook photographs, Collins denied any knowledge of the motorcycle or the house depicted in the photographs.

         After the questioning concluded, Collins left the DMV and the officers continued their investigation. Officer Rhodes learned from an informant that the house in the Facebook photograph was located on Dellmead Lane in the City of Charlottesville near the border of Albemarle County. Less than half an hour later, Officer Rhodes located the house and parked along the street. From his position on the street, Officer Rhodes could see what appeared to be a motorcycle covered with a white tarp. At trial, Officer Rhodes testified that "a quarter of the wheel [was] sticking out from underneath the cover" and that despite the tarp, he recognized the distinct chrome accents and "stretched out" shape of the motorcycle. Additionally, the location and angle of the partially covered motorcycle matched that of the motorcycle in Collins' Facebook photographs.

         Officer Rhodes then walked onto the property, "a car length or two" up the driveway, between the street and the front steps of the house. While standing on the driveway, Officer Rhodes uncovered the motorcycle and confirmed that it appeared to be the same orange and black Suzuki that had eluded him on July 25, 2013. He then recorded the motorcycle's vehicle identification number or "VIN." A computer search of the VIN revealed the motorcycle had been "stolen out of New York" several years before. After gathering this information, Officer Rhodes re-covered the motorcycle, left the property, and returned to his police car to conduct surveillance and wait for Collins.

         Shortly thereafter, a vehicle dropped off Collins at the Dellmead Lane residence. Officer Rhodes returned to the house and knocked on the door, which Collins answered. Although it was "over 90 [degrees] that day, " Collins came to the door dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and Timberland-style boots. Officer Rhodes later testified that "at the DMV 30 minutes prior" Collins had been wearing "shorts and flip flops and a t-shirt." When asked about the motorcycle, Collins initially said he "didn't know anything about it." He then told Officer Rhodes it belonged to a friend. Eventually, Collins admitted that he purchased the motorcycle, without a title, from Eric Jones. At trial during direct examination by the Commonwealth's Attorney, Officer Rhodes recounted his conversation with Collins:

[COMMONWEALTH'S ATTORNEY]: [T]ell the judge, please, when [Collins] comes to the door what happened next?
[OFFICER RHODES]: I asked him, I said do you mind if I speak with you, and he said sure. We came. . . outside, and I started inquiring about the motorcycle. I asked him [if] he knew about this motorcycle, [and] he told me he didn't know anything about it, it was a friend's. . . . [Collins] then told me "well I did ride it over, bring it over from my mom's, over in Northfield over to Dellmead Avenue, but that had been a while and I don't ever drive it, because I don't have a motorcycle license."
Q: Did he tell you then, ultimately, whose motorcycle it was?
A: He told me it was … it was his. He told me ultimately he had bought it, he had paid $3, 500 to Eric Jones for the motorcycle, and that's where the tag comes back into play … which corroborated that story that that tag had involvement with Eric Jones….
Q: [Collins] bought the motorcycle from Eric Jones?
A: [Yes, t]he motorcycle from Eric Jones, and [Collins] had paid $3, 500 for it, and there was no title ...

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