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What Will SCOTUS Do About Warrantless Vehicle Searches?

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Police pulled over Terrence Byrd for a traffic violation and learned he was not on the rental car agreement -- his girlfriend was.

That was not a crime, but then they searched the car and found heroin in the trunk. That was a crime.

During arguments in Byrd v. United States, the question was whether the warrantless search violated the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. The U.S. Supreme Court, for the moment, didn't have the answer.

However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed ready to rule on the case. She said police need a warrant to search a car when they stop drivers in such circumstances.

"And absent probable cause, there's no right to search," she said. "So why are we here? "

Arguing for the petitioner, Robert M. Loeb agreed.

"You're here because you lost below," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chimed in for comic relief.

Reasonable Expectation Rule

Justice Stephen Breyer said Fourth Amendment law is already too complicated. He wanted to form a rule that will "allow policemen and others to understand what it is they're supposed to do."

"I'm still trying to think of the rule," he said. "A person who has possession of and is driver -- driver of a car, whoever he is, has a reasonable expectation in privacy of the parts of that car, unless in driving or possessing it or -- he's committing a crime."

Sotomayor challenged the attorney for the Justice Department. The government argued that petitioner had no right to contest the search because he was not authorized by the rental agreement.

"[T]he rule you want us to write in this opinion is, if you are an unauthorized driver of a rental car, even if you have permission of the authorized driver, the police can search the trunk without any probable cause?" the justice asked.

The high court, which also heard another case on a warrantless vehicle search, is expected to rule by the end of June.

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