An unauthorized driver of a rental car may have privacy interests in the car he drives

Byrd v. United States, No. 16-1371 (U.S., May 14, 2018)

An unauthorized driver of a rental car may have privacy interests in the car he drives

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “someone in otherwise lawful possession and control of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement does not list him or her as an authorized driver.” 

This case originates close to home, coming out of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.  Terrance Byrd was stopped by a Pennsylvania State Trooper traveling from New Jersey to Pittsburgh in his girlfriend’s rental car.  He was stopped, as detailed by the trooper, because the trooper perceived Byrd’s driving the rental car was “suspicious,” with his hands at the “10 and 2” position on the wheel while sitting far back from the wheel. Based on the observation, the trooper followed Byrd for a short time then stopped him for a possible traffic infraction.  According to the trooper, when he approached the passenger side window to explain to Byrd the purpose for the stop, Byrd was “visibly nervous” and “was shaking and had a hard time obtaining his driver’s license.”  Byrd did, however, hand over an interim license and the rental agreement for the car, which had language in it to the effect that “permitting an unauthorized driver to operate the vehicle is a violation of the rental agreement.”  Of course, Byrd was not an authorized driver.

Under these circumstances, when the trooper’s back up arrived on scene, the determination was made that Byrd “ha[d] no expectation of privacy” in the car because he was “not on the renter agreement.”  The trooper had found that New Jersey had a warrant out for Byrd’s arrest for a probation violation; however, New Jersey did not want Byrd arrested for extradition.  Therefore, the troopers asked Byrd to step out of the vehicle, they conducted a pat down, and they asked for consent to search the vehicle after Byrd told them he had nothing illegal in the car.  At this point Byrd admitted that he had a “blunt” in the car.  Interestingly, though, the troopers did not retrieve that, but they persisted to seek his consent to search the vehicle despite saying that they did not need consent because he was not listed on the rental agreement.  From that point, the troopers opened the passenger and driver doors and the trunk and began a thorough search.  They ultimately uncovered body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.  Byrd was arrested, charged, and he later filed a Motion to Suppress challenging the search as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The District Court disposed of Byrd’s motion on the ground that Byrd lacked “standing” to contest the search as an initial matter.  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, but neither court addressed the probable-cause question, which the trooper contended he had because of the blunt.  The Supreme Court took the case up on review because “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.”

Coming to the conclusion that a sole occupant of a rental vehicle may indeed have a legitimate expectation of privacy in a vehicle they are unauthorized to drive, the Court said this:

The Court sees 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, much as it did not seem to matter whether the defendant in [a prior case] owned or leased the apartment he permitted the defendant to use in his absence.  Both would have the expectation of privacy that comes with the right to exclude. 

Reasoning as it did to its holding, the High Court nonetheless remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to give consideration to two points the government raise.  First, did Byrd intentionally use his girlfriend as a strawman to rent to the car he would have otherwise been unable to rent due to his criminal history, thereby misleading the rental company and being more likened to a “thief” who would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen car?  And second, if the argument is not otherwise waived by the government, was there probable cause for the troopers to search the car even without Byrd’s consent?

The case will ultimately meet its conclusion on remand after some further fact-finding.  In the meantime, however, the rule, again, which the Supreme Court set forth is this: 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.