The Supreme Court Monday said that just because the name of a driver of a rental car is not on the rental agreement, that does not automatically mean that he or she has diminished privacy rights.
The unanimous opinion sends the case back down to the lower courts. The ruling is a victory for privacy rights advocates who were concerned that police could find reasons to stop rental car drivers for minor infractions knowing that they could engage in searches without the driver's consent.
The case dates back to 2014, when Terrence Byrd was stopped by police for a minor traffic infraction. Police noticed that he appeared nervous, and when they asked him for the rental agreement for the car, his name was not listed as a permissive driver.
The officers said they did not need to consent to a search of his car, because his name was not listed on the rental agreement and as an unauthorized driver he had no reasonable expectation of privacy. They found 49 bricks of heroin in his trunk and body armor.
Byrd's lawyer sought to suppress the evidence against him, citing the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. He noted that Byrd had the permission of his girlfriend, whose name was on the agreement, to rent the car.
He lost at the lower court and was subsequently convicted of drug charges and sentenced to 120 months in prison.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "the mere fact that a driver is not listed on the rental agreement will not defeat his or her otherwise reasonable expectation of privacy,"
Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said Monday's ruling "closes an important gap" in the court's "Fourth Amendment jurisprudence by clarifying that a driver of a rental car who is not on the rental agreement does not automatically lose the protections other drivers would have during a traffic stop."
"That's an important clarification, albeit one that just means law enforcement officers will have to treat such drivers the same way they treat anyone else they pull over," Vladeck added.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Byrd, citing its own precedent "that society generally does not share or recognize an expectation of privacy for those who have gained possession and control over a rental vehicle they have borrowed without the permission of the rental company."
In briefs to the Supreme Court, a lawyer for Byrd emphasized that his client's girlfriend had allowed him to drive the car that she had rented.
"She has given him both possession and control of the car, and he reasonably believes that he can exclude strangers and the government from intruding upon his private personal family possessions stored in the car," Robert M. Loeb wrote. Loeb stressed that Byrd's constitutional protections should not materially change because it turned out that he was not the authorized driver under a rental agreement.
Lawyers for the Trump administration, however, argued in court papers that he "did not own the car, had not rented it, and was not allowed to drive it."
"He cannot assert Fourth Amendment rights to object to its search," Solicitor General Noel Francisco said.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in support of Byrd arguing that the lower court opinion would "severely curtail the scope of the Fourth Amendment" and affect a "broad swath of the population, especially individuals who have come to depend on rental cars for everyday travel because they cannot afford to purchase their own vehicle."
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