[NOTE: This post was updated with additional analysis at 5:02 p.m.]
The Fourth Amendment protects us from (among other things) a warrantless search of a place – such as our homes – that we can reasonably expect to remain private. Today the Supreme Court ruled that a driver who has permission to use a rental car is generally entitled to the same protections under the Fourth Amendment as the driver who rented the car.
The court’s decision came in the case of Terrence Byrd, a New Jersey man who was driving a car rented by Latasha Reed, his fiancée (or former girlfriend, depending on whose account you are reading), when he was pulled over by a state trooper in Pennsylvania. The trooper gave him a warning for driving in the left lane and then searched the car, believing that he didn’t need Byrd’s consent because Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement. The troopers found body armor and 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk, leading to federal charges against Byrd.
After the trial court rejected Byrd’s argument that the heroin and body armor could not be introduced as evidence because the search of the trunk violated his Fourth Amendment rights, Byrd pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld his conviction, on the ground that the driver of a rental car who is not listed on the rental agreement does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car and cannot challenge a search, but today the Supreme Court reversed.
In a unanimous decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the justices rejected the federal government’s argument that a driver who is not listed on the rental agreement can never have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car, because the rental company has not given him permission to use it. That rule, the justices concluded, “rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.” Under the Supreme Court’s cases, the justices explained, whether someone has an expectation of privacy in a car shouldn’t hinge on whether the person who gave them permission to drive it owns the car or rented it.
The justices also rebuffed the government’s argument that Byrd could not have had an expectation of privacy in the rental car because driving the car violated the rental agreement that Reed had signed. “As anyone who has rented a car knows, car-rental agreements are filled with long lists of restrictions” – everything from not driving on unpaved roads to not talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving. At least for Fourth Amendment purposes, the justices concluded, “there is no meaningful difference between the authorized-driver provision” and the other provisions of the rental agreement that the government agrees “do not eliminate an expectation of privacy.”
After today’s decision, Byrd is not entirely in the clear. The justices vacated the 3rd Circuit’s ruling but sent the case back for the lower courts to consider whether the government could prevail on two other grounds: whether Byrd still had no expectation of privacy because he had used Reed to mislead the rental company, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to rent the car himself because of his prior criminal record, and was therefore no different from a car thief; and whether – putting everything else aside – the police had probable cause to search the car because they believed it contained evidence of a crime.
This post was also published on SCOTUSblog.