Drivers of Rental Cars Have Privacy Rights, Too, High Court Says

Courthouse News – by Barbara Leonard

WASHINGTON (CN) – Taking a stand for privacy rights, the Supreme Court remanded a case Monday where police searched a rental car without the driver’s consent because his name was not on the rental agreement.

Though the ruling notes that people’s privacy expectations in general are diminished in automobiles, Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasized that the question of whether a warrant is required is separate from the matter addressed here.  

Pennsylvania State Police offered a flimsy excuse for why they initiated the underlying traffic stop, four years ago on a highway near Harrisburg. As detailed in the officer’s notes, Terrence Byrd raised suspicions because his hands were at the “10 and 2” position on the steering wheel and because his seat was heavily reclined.

When he finally did pull Byrd over, the officer cited a law that prohibits drivers from using the lefthand lane of a roadway except for passing maneuvers.

The officer summoned backup while attempting to clarify Byrd’s identity, aliases and criminal history: though there was a warrant out for Byrd in New Jersey, the Garden State had not requested that other jurisdictions arrest Byrd for extradition.

Taking it upon themselves to search the car, however, the officers found 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk as well as body armor. They told Byrd they did not need his permission to conduct the search because the rental agreement did not list Byrd as an additional driver.

Byrd conditionally pleaded guilty but claimed on appeal that the evidence against him should have been suppressed.

The Supreme Court was unanimous Monday that the Third Circuit must conduct a probable-cause inquiry and decide as well whether Byrd has a greater expectation of privacy than a car thief.

“The court sees no reason why the expectation of privacy that comes from lawful possession and control and the attendant right to exclude would differ depending on whether the car in question is rented or privately owned by someone other than the person in current possession of it,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

Bob Loeb, an attorney for Byrd with the firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, cheered the court this morning for agreeing that police cannot rely wholly on rental contracts to “open a locked truck and rummage through someone’s possessions.”

“The court clearly stated that a rental contract violation does not mean the loss of constitutional rights,” Loeb said in an email. “Importantly, today’s ruling should unlawful stop the practice of pulling over rental cars with the hopes of engaging in a search of a car without any suspicion of a crime.

One point fatal to the government’s position, Kennedy found, was the fact that even a driver not authorized by a rental-car contract “would be permitted to exclude third parties from it, such as a carjacker.”

Kennedy also cited examples of everyday situations that might compel a person to violate the terms of a rental contract and get behind the wheel of a car without being listed as a driver: “perhaps the renter is drowsy or inebriated and the two think it safer for the friend to drive them to their destination.”

“The government fails to explain what bearing this breach of contract, standing alone, has on expectations of privacy in the car,” Kennedy continued.

When a renter allows an unauthorized party to drive their car, the decision is accompanied by certain risk. But Kennedy said that additional fees and the loss of insurance coverage have “little to do with whether one would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car.”

Kennedy also called it a stretch, however, for Byrd to suggest that a driver’s status as the sole occupant of a rental car affords him privacy rights.

“Without qualification, it would include within its ambit thieves and others who, not least because of their lack of any property-based justification, would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” the ruling states.

U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco represented the government.

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