Recent Supreme Court Cases
Byrd v. United States:
On January 9, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Byrd v. United States to determine whether “a driver [has] 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?" While the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the driver did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Circuits are split on the answer to this question. The Petitioner's brief argued that because he, Terrence Byrd, was in possession and control of the rental car with his fiancée's permission, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy and was protected against a warrantless search of the rental car’s locked trunk. The United States argued in its brief that an unauthorized driver of a rental car does not have “enough of a connection to the car to treat it as an ‘effect’ protected by the Fourth Amendment.”
In September 2014, Byrd’s fiancée rented a vehicle, but did not name Byrd on the rental agreement. The rental agreement permitted other drivers to operate the vehicle with the rental company's “prior written consent.” Ignoring this consent requirement, Byrd’s fiancée permitted him to drive the rental car in breach of the rental agreement. Pennsylvania police officers pulled Byrd over for allegedly violating a state driving law that required “drivers to limit use of the left-hand lane to passing maneuvers.” After producing an interim NY driver’s license and the rental agreement, the officers discovered that Byrd, also known as James Carter, had a criminal history of drug, weapon, and assault charges in New Jersey. The officers asked Byrd if the rented vehicle contained any illegal substances and for permission to search the vehicle but advised him that they did not need his consent for a search because he was not an authorized rental driver. The officers searched the vehicle without Byrd's consent and found illegal body armor and heroin in the car's locked trunk.
The District Court held that the vehicle search was lawful and found Byrd guilty of possessing heroin with intent to distribute in violation of 21 USC § 841(a)(1) and possessing body armor as a prohibited person in violation of 18 USC § 931 (a)(1). Byrd appealed, challenging the District Court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence, based on the initial traffic stop and vehicle search. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s conviction and held that Byrd did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the rented vehicle and, as a result, lacked standing to challenge the officers’ vehicle search.
In oral argument, Byrd's counsel, Robert M. Loeb, took the position that an individual has an expectation of privacy with respect to his personal property locked in an automobile. Byrd's counsel argued that a car rental agreement does not establish the parameters of an individual’s constitutional rights and that a contract violation does not negate a person’s ability to invoke his Fourth Amendment rights. When pressed by Justice Breyer to articulate a rule that the Court should follow, Byrd's counsel stated, “our rule is that if you are given permission by the renter to store . . . your personal items in the trunk you have a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Ginsburg immediately questioned whether Byrd could have rented the car himself based on his criminal record. Byrd's counsel acknowledged this possibility but claimed that Byrd's criminal history was irrelevant because he had his fiancée's permission to lock his items in the vehicle's trunk. In sum, the position taken by Byrd's counsel implied that like the contract term breach, his client's ineligibility to legally rent a vehicle, should not affect his Fourth Amendment protections.
Throughout the entire argument, Justice Breyer was largely concerned with the need for a clear rule that law enforcement could follow to determine when there is an expectation of privacy in a rental car. Breyer observed that the “Fourth Amendment law is too complicated in a sense already." According to Breyer, "you look for principles or rules that will allow policemen and others to understand what it is they’re supposed to do.”
Justice Gorsuch agreed with Justice Breyer that the reasonable expectation of privacy test is complicated and unclear. Consequently, he questioned whether it would be simpler to address the issue under property law principles. Justice Alito, however, did not like this approach because "property" is used throughout the constitution but never mentioned in the Fourth Amendment.
During oral arguments, the Assistant United States Attorney, Eric J. Feigin, primarily argued that a driver who is not authorized by the rental company lacks a close enough connection to treat the vehicle as his effect for Fourth Amendment protection. His argument focused heavily on the contract violation, arguing that a contractual breach cannot result in the rental vehicle being an effect and giving rise to a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Justice Breyer continued to stress his desire for a clear, simple, and workable rule for law enforcement to follow. Breyer seemed to support a rule that any driver of a rental car, regardless of whether he had the rental company's written consent, would have Fourth Amendment protections as long as he had not stolen the car or committed another crime. Mr. Feigin greatly disagreed with Justice Breyer that such a rule would be simple and easy for officers to follow. He argued that, in fact, Justice Breyer's standard would incorrectly increase the scope of a reasonable expectation of privacy.
During Mr. Feigin's argument, the Justices voiced their continuing concern about the frequency with which rental agreements are breached and the practical consequences of allowing police officers to search a rental car whenever this occurs. In response, Mr. Feigin argued that the key difference here was that Byrd was not within the scope of the original contract and so did not have a legitimate connection to the car. Because Byrd did not have a legitimate connection to the car, according to the government, he could not assert Fourth Amendment rights to it.
How the Supreme Court decides this case will have widespread significance because of the frequency with which unauthorized drivers operate rental cars in violation of rental agreements. Various organizations have suggested that if the Supreme Court sides with the United States Government, it would negatively affect many drivers who rely on rental cars for transportation. The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in its amicus brief that such a holding would negatively affect minorities who frequently rely on this form of transportation. Additionally, a holding in the government's favor could have negative consequences for constitutional law jurisprudence. As Justice Sotomayor stated, if the Court adopts the government's argument, it would be the first time that the Supreme Court holds that a private contract defines the scope of the Fourth Amendment protection. Such a holding could create a slippery slope where breaches of private contracts lead to forfeiture of constitutional protections.
Written By: Abigail Forth
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