On January 9, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States discussed an important question that could affect many tourists and the rental car industry. Does someone who’s driving a rental car have an expectation of privacy of what’s in the car when that person is not an authorized driver in the rental agreement, but had permission from the person who signed the agreement? Byrd v. United States attempts to answer that very question.
In Byrd, law enforcement noticed a rental car pass by with an unusually reclined seat. The driver was pulled over for violating a passing law, and he produced a license with the name William Byrd with no photo and a rental agreement, assigned to James Carter. After doing a search on Byrd’s name, police noticed Byrd had a warrant for his arrest in New Jersey, and found other information regarding his criminal record. After asking if he had anything illegal in the vehicle, officers searched the vehicle, claiming that they had consent, and that they did not even need consent, as Byrd was not on the rental agreement as someone authorized to drive the vehicle. Officers later found a flak jacket and forty-nine (49) bricks of heroin. The lower federal courts found that Byrd did not have an expectation of privacy inside the car because he was not authorized to drive the vehicle under the rental agreement.
Generally speaking, police officers must have a warrant to search a person’s property. While there are exceptions to needing a warrant, law enforcement does not need a warrant if someone does not have an expectation of privacy in that property. Simply put, there must be enough of a connection between a person and what’s being searched to have an expectation of privacy that triggers Constitutional protection. The arguments on either side of the issue centered around how the connection between a person and a rental car is established for Fourth Amendment purposes. The attorney for Byrd argued that someone who is not on the agreement has an expectation of privacy when the authorized person gives permission for someone to store their belongings in the vehicle. Since Byrd alerted officers, before the search, that everything in the trunk belonged to him, he had an expectation of privacy to the contents of the trunk. The attorney for the government argued for a simple rule that only those on the rental agreement have an expectation of privacy of the vehicle, and no one else. This way, whoever had a reasonable expectation of privacy would be clearly stated on the rental contract.
Fourth Amendment cases are harder to predict an outcome for in the Supreme Court, due to the justices not usually sticking with traditional political leanings. However, during oral arguments, the justices seemed to not agree with either argument from the attorneys. On the one hand, they worried about how police officers would independently know whether the driver had authorization from the renter to drive the vehicle unless the authorized person was actually there, which would independently trigger the warrant requirement. In favor of Byrd, the justices focused less on the fact that he was not an authorized driver and more on the admission that the items in the trunk belonged to him, which they believed would trigger an expectation of privacy to his own items. On the other hand, the justices were skeptical of the government’s simplistic rule, as that may escalate the number of rental vehicles pulled over and searched without probable cause simply because the driver’s name was not on the agreement.
So what happens if the Supreme Court decides that only those authorized to drive the rental car have an expectation of privacy to the contents of the car? That kind of decision would open the floodgates of warrantless searches, especially where the rental car market is strong. Many tourists would now need to list every potential driver of the car, or else the car could be searched immediately after being pulled over. People who forget to list their spouse, or families who forget to list their children on the agreement would be that more susceptible to warrantless searches. Those not listed in the agreement would not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” even if they were allowed to drive the car from the person listed in the agreement.
For more information on the Byrd v. United States case, you can visit SCOTUSblog to find lower decisions and filings by parties.
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