A unanimous Supreme Court said on Monday that Pennsylvania state troopers violated the Fourth Amendment during a traffic stop after citing a car’s driver lost constitutional protections because his name wasn’t on a rental agreement.
In Byrd v. United States, the dispute was over the following question: “Does a driver have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when he has the renter’s permission to drive the car but is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement?”
Terrence Byrd was pulled over by Pennsylvania State Police for an apparent traffic violation while he was driving a car rented by his girlfriend. Byrd was not a signatory to the rental agreement nor covered by its provisions. Police then searched the car without a warrant and found heroin and a bulletproof vest. The lower courts ruled Byrd didn’t have an expectation of privacy. Byrd’s attorneys claim federal courts around the country are divided on the question.
In the Court’s opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “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.”
On the basic Fourth Amendment question, the Court was clear that the government’s claim that Byrd surrendered his rights to expect a search warrant because of the car rental contract’s stipulations wasn’t on solid constitutional grounds.
“Here, the Government contends that drivers who are not listed on rental agreements always lack an expectation of privacy in the automobile based on the rental company’s lack of authorization alone. This per se rule rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections,” Kennedy said.
However, Justice Kennedy left two other questions open for a lower court to decide, about the alleged fraudulent procurement of a rental car to commit a crime and if probable cause justified the car search.
“The Government asserts that, on the facts here, Byrd should have no greater expectation of privacy than a car thief because he intentionally used a third party as a strawman in a calculated plan to mislead the rental company from the very outset, all to aid him in committing a crime,” Kennedy said, referring that question back to a district court and a federal appeals court.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.