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Police Search of Rental Car - Does It Matter If The Driver Is On the Car Rental Agreement? SCOTUS To Hear Case

Posted Tuesday, March 13, 2018 by Lizanne Padula.

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This term the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing a case, Byrd v. United States, that asks if the Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search extend to the driver of a rental car who is not listed on the rental agreement.

It isn’t uncommon that extra charges are added to the cost of renting a car when you add additional authorized drivers to the rental car agreement. In Byrd, Terrence Byrd was pulled over while driving a rental car, of which he was not listed as an authorized driver on the contract, and the police subsequently searched the vehicle and found flat jacket body armor and 49 bricks of heroine. Byrd was indicted in federal court on charges for possession of heroin with intent to distribute and possession of body armor after a felony conviction for a violent crime. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Latasha Reed, Byrd’s former girlfriend, rented the car in New Jersey and signed a rental agreement that indicated that additional drivers were only permitted “with prior written consent.” Reed let Byrd drive the car on a solo trip from New Jersey to Pittsburgh. He was then pulled over on Interstate 81 in Pennsylvania. Two state troopers gave Byrd a warning for driving in the left lane, then proceeded to search the rental car. That is when the troopers found the contraband that led to Byrd’s conviction.

The state troopers reasoned they did not need Byrd’s consent to search the vehicle since he was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement, and therefore had no expectation of privacy. Byrd argues that the evidence cannot be used against him because it was illegally obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against warrantless search of a place in which one has a reasonable expectation of privacy. He argues that his reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car’s trunk does not hinge on whether he owned the car, but on whether he had possession and control over the car.

The district court rejected Byrd’s arguments and agreed with the government that Byrd could not have had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car because he was not on the rental car agreement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s findings and upheld Byrd’s conviction.

This issue is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to hand down its ruling in the late spring or early summer.

Supporters of both sides have cautioned the Court on the gravity of the potential ripple effects that may be caused by this decision. For example, the ACLU argues that a ruling in favor of the government would disproportionately impact lower-income drivers and minorities because lower-income people depend on rental cars for everyday travel when they cannot afford their own vehicles and minorities are more likely to rent cars and be pulled over and searched while driving.

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