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Rental Cars and the Fourth Amendment: Byrd v. United States

Consider this: You are driving down the road in a rental car that your significant other rented but allowed you to drive. You pack your suitcase, place it in the trunk, and head down the road. A short time later, you are pulled over for a minor traffic violation. The cops ask you for permission to search the car. However, you know your Fourth Amendment rights—absent probable cause or a search warrant, police have no right to rifle through your personal belongings. With that knowledge, you politely decline. Unfortunately, the cops explain that the Fourth Amendment does not protect drivers like you, because you were not on the rental agreement and cannot possibly have a legitimate expectation of privacy. So the officers search the car, including the contents of your suitcase packed in the trunk, without neither probable cause, nor a warrant.

You might be wondering how could something so common as driving a car leased in another’s name, but with their permission, extinguish your fundamental rights of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Certainly, locking your suitcase in the trunk of the car provides a reasonable, legitimate, expectation of privacy, right?

Byrd v. United States

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Byrd v. United States, a case strikingly similar to the scenario above. Terrance Byrd was driving a car leased by his fiancé, the mother of his five children. Along a Pennsylvania highway, Byrd was pulled over for not using his blinker, and in the officer’s words, for “suspicious[ly]” driving with his hands placed in the ten- and two-o’clock positions on the steering wheel. On the grounds that Byrd was driving a rental car without his name listed on the rental agreement, the officers proceeded to search the car and Byrd’s suitcase. The search turned up a flak jacket and 49 bricks of heroin. Byrd entered a conditional guilty plea while reserving his right to challenge the lawfulness of warrantless search and seizure.

Why Does it Matter that it was a Rental Car?

The short answer: it may not matter at all, but at this point it remains unclear.

The government contends that the car was the property of the rental car company and the rental company determined that only Byrd’s fiancé could drive the car. The government asserts, that Byrd and his fiancé colluded together in a scheme to get around the rental company’s decision to only permit his fiancé to drive the car. The government wants the Court to rule that a driver of a rental car who is not on the rental agreement lacks the requisite “connection” to the car for it to be considered an “effect” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, because Byrd had no connection to the car, he had no right to assert his Fourth Amendments rights to an unreasonable search or seizure.

Counsel for the defense argued that the rental agreement merely protects the rental company from liability stemming from an unauthorized driver using its vehicle; the question of whether Byrd was in lawful possession of the car is not impacted by the terms of the rental agreement. The defense directs the Court to focus on whether Byrd had a reasonable expectation of privacy when he locked his suitcase in the trunk and drove the car with his fiancé’s permission.

At oral argument, the defense’s argument did not seem to sit right with Justice Elena Kagan. Noting that Byrd and his fiancé violated important terms of the contract that are significant “to the owner of the property” while also engaging “in conduct that frustrates law enforcement in various ways,” Justice Kagan questioned the defense’s assertion that society would find this type of conduct to be “reasonable.”

However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Neil Gorsuch appeared more apt to side with Byrd, although they seemed to focus more on property rights that on expectations of privacy. During oral arguments, Justice Sotomayor quipped that she couldn’t understand why Byrd could not challenge the search “once he admitted that . . . the goods in the trunk were his.” Similarly, Justice Gorsuch found the reasonable expectation of privacy to be overly complicated. Given that Byrd was in lawful possession of the car, “ancient” property rights would be sufficient to allow Byrd to maintain privacy over his possessions from anyone other than his fiancé and the rental company.

If the government prevails, a chilling effect on Fourth Amendment rights may result. Millions of people who depend on the use of rental cars, would suddenly be subject to a search or seizure at the sole discretion of the police.

Brian Aanestad is a law clerk at Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC and a third-year law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Upon graduation, he will sit for the bar exam this July and intends to be a criminal defense attorney shortly thereafter.

St. Paul Criminal Lawyers; Criminal Defense Attorneys Minnesota; and St. Paul MN Criminal DWI Lawyer.

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