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Supreme Court: Unauthorized Drivers Still Have Expectation of Privacy in Rental Car

Let's be honest, we've all probably driven a rental car that we weren't allowed to. Maybe a friend rented the car for a road trip and didn't feel like putting four people on the rental agreement. Or your parents rented a car to visit you, and you decided to run a quick errand in it.

Either way, you violated the terms of the car rental agreement. But does that violation mean you don't have the same expectation of privacy as the registered driver? Not unless you stole it, according to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Fourth Amendment applies equally to the driver who rented the car and a driver who has permission to use the rental car.

Reasonable Rentals

The case involved New Jersey man Terrence Byrd, whose fiancée rented the car he was driving when he was pulled over in Pennsylvania. Byrd did not consent to a search of the car, but because Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement, officers didn't believe they needed his consent. Troopers found 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk along with some body armor, leading to his arrest and federal charges.

Byrd's attorney tried to suppress the evidence gathered from the warrantless search, and while the trial court and lower courts allowed the search, the Supreme Court disagreed, finding "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."

(Un)Lawful Possession?

There could be "countless innocuous reasons why an unauthorized driver might get behind the wheel of a rental car and drive it," Justice Kennedy wrote for the unanimous Court, "perhaps the renter is drowsy or inebriated and the two think it safer for the friend to drive them to their destination." Kennedy asserted that while "this constitutes a breach of the rental agreement, and perhaps a serious one," the breach of contract, alone, had no bearing on the driver's expectations of privacy in the car.

Instead, the Court's reasoning hinged on whether the driver was in "lawful possession" of the rental car, meaning that someone using the car with the authorized driver's permission retains their Fourth Amendment protections, whereas someone who has stolen a rental car does not.

By the way, the ruling may not be all good news for Byrd, who eventually pleaded guilty when the trial court denied his motion to suppress the drug evidence. Byrd allegedly admitted to officers he had a "blunt" in the car, which may have been reason enough for the search. His case has been remanded for the court to decide whether the search was justified anyway, and also whether someone who procures a rental car for the purposes of committing a crime is essentially on the same legal footing as a thief.

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