On May 14, 2018, the United States Supreme Court held that people who borrow rental cars from friends are afforded the same protections against unlawful searches as the authorized driver. In the matter of Terrence Byrd v. United States, 2018 WL 2186175, the Supreme Court justices unanimously held “ the mere fact that a driver in lawful possession or control of a rental car is not listed on the rental agreement will not defeat his or her otherwise reasonable expectation of privacy”.
In September of 2014, Pennsylvania State Troopers pulled over a car driven by Terrence Byrd. Byrd was the only person in the rental car which had been rented by his fiancée, Latasha Reed in Wayne, New Jersey. Reed rented the car with Byrd present but failed to list Byrd as authorized driver on the rental agreement. The rental agreement specifically stated that “PERMITTING AN UNAUTHORIZED DRIVER TO OPERATE THE VEHICLE IS A VIOLATION OF THE RENTAL AGREEMENT.”
Shortly after Reed rented the car, Byrd returned with the car to his home in Patterson, New Jersey to get his belongings and later departed in the car alone for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After driving three hours, Byrd was stopped by Pennsylvania Troopers on Rt. 81, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The Troopers became suspicious of Byrd because he was driving with his hands at the “10 and 2” position on the steering wheel, sitting far back from the steering wheel, and driving a rental car. Based on these observations, the Troopers decided to follow Byrd and, a short time later, stopped him for a possible traffic infraction.
In the course of the traffic stop the troopers learned that the car was rented and that Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement as an authorized driver. The Troopers discovered that Byrd had identification under two different possible alias. The Troopers further discovered that Byrd had prior convictions for weapons and drug charges as well as an outstanding warrant for a probation violation in New Jersey. Byrd then revealed he had a “blunt” in the car and offered to retrieve it for them. The Troopers declined Byrd’s offer and continued to seek consent to search the car, though they stated they did not need consent because he was not listed on the rental agreement. The Troopers began a thorough search of the car and trunk. In the trunk, the Troopers found a laundry bag containing body armor and found 49 bricks of heroin.
The evidence was turned over to federal authorities, who charged Byrd with distribution and possession of heroin with the intent to distribute in violation of 21 U. S. C. §841(a)(1) and possession of body armor by a prohibited person in violation of 18 U. S. C. §931(a)(1). Byrd moved to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.
The Court of Appeals recognized that a “circuit split exists as to whether the sole occupant of a rental vehicle has a Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy when that occupant is not named in the rental agreement”; but it noted that Circuit precedent already had “spoken as to this issue . . . and determined such a person has no expectation of privacy and therefore no standing to challenge a search of the vehicle.”
In its Opinion, the Supreme Court recognized that one who owns and possesses a car, like one who owns and possesses a house, almost always has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it, but it is more difficult to define and delineate the legitimate expectations of privacy of others. The Court stated that a person does not always need to have a recognized common-law property interest in the place searched to be able to claim a reasonable expectation of privacy in it.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court also noted that legitimate presence on the premises of the place searched, standing alone, is not enough to accord a reasonable expectation of privacy, because it “creates too broad a gauge for measurement of Fourth Amendment rights.”
The Supreme Court explained that “[l]egitimation of expectations of privacy by law must have a source outside of the Fourth Amendment, either by reference to concepts of real or personal property law or to understandings that are recognized and permitted by society. The Supreme Court further noted that the two concepts in cases like Byrd’s case are often linked. “One of the main rights attaching to property is the right to exclude others,” and, in the main, “one who owns or lawfully possesses or controls property will in all likelihood have a legitimate expectation of privacy by virtue of the right to exclude.”
In rejecting the Government’s position that only authorized drivers of rental cars have expectations of privacy in those vehicles, the Court saw 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.
The central inquiry was whether Byrd had lawful possession of the car. The Court reasoned that under some circumstances ‘wrongful’ presence at the scene of a search would not enable a defendant to object to the legality of the search. A car thief would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen car. However, Byrd was a permissive driver of the rental car and therefore, had the right to exclude others and a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to further consider two of the Government’s arguments: that one who intention- ally uses a third party to procure a rental car by a fraudulent scheme for the purpose of committing a crime is no better situated than a car thief; and that probable cause justified the search in any event.
Attorneys arguing on behalf of Byrd argued that 115 million car rentals take place annually in the United States and if the government won, police would have an incentive to pull over a rental car driver who commits a traffic violation because police will know they can search the car if the driver isn’t on the rental agreement.