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Rental Car Agreement Doesn't Trump Fourth Amendment

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

A unanimous decision was reached in the controversial Byrd v. United States case, reversing the decisions of the appellate and district courts, which held that an officer did not need probable cause or consent to search a rental vehicle when the driver and sole occupant was not listed on the rental agreement.

As the High Court explained, the fact that a driver isn't listed on a rental agreement does not, in and of itself, impact a person's reasonable expectation in privacy. In short, the Court ruled that so long as a driver is legally in possession of the vehicle, Fourth Amendment protections still apply.

Reversed, But Not Over

For the defendant in this case, this decision may be wonderful news, but is definitely anti-climactic. The Court remanded with instructions for the lower court to figure out whether or not other exceptions applied to the facts of the case, which are rather curious.

Byrd's former girlfriend rented the car, did not list Byrd on the agreement, and immediately handed over the keys to the car to him. Doing so was a clear breach of the rental agreement, but not necessarily illegal, on its face, as Byrd was in lawful possession. From there, he loaded up the car, and started driving from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. When he was pulled over in Pennsylvania, officers found out he wasn't listed on the agreement and then began to search the car without consent, claiming it was not needed. Curiously, before the search began, officers sought consent, and Byrd refused, but did admit to having a "blunt" in the car (which officers understood to be marijuana). In the trunk, officers found 49 bricks of heroin and body armor. Drug charges followed. Naturally, Byrd's attorney moved to suppress the evidence gathered from the warrantless search.

After Byrd's motion to suppress was denied, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years, and then appealed the denial of his motion. On appeal, SCOTUS narrowly ruled that the fact that a driver is not listed on a rental agreement does not remove the "reasonable expectation of privacy." On remand, the lower court will have to decide if the other facts supported a finding of probable cause for the warrantless search.

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