Byrd v. United States: An Examination of Expectation of Privacy in Rental Cars

A recent United States Supreme Court case, Byrd v. U.S., No. 16-1371 (2018) discussed the parameters of expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. There was a circuit split about whether an unlisted driver of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental vehicle.  The question certified was does a driver have 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?

rental carIn the case, Latasha Reed rented a car in New Jersey while petitioner Terrence Byrd waited outside the rental facility.  Reed listed no other drivers on her rental agreement and the agreement warned that permitting an unauthorized driver would violate the agreement.  Reed gave the keys to Byrd upon leaving the building and he stored his personal belongings in the trunk and left by himself to drive to Pennsylvania.

Byrd was stopped in Pennsylvania for a traffic infraction whereupon the police learned it was a rental car and he was not the authorized driver.  Byrd had prior drug and weapons convictions.  The police searched the car, stating they did not actually need his consent because he was not listed on the rental agreement.  They found 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk and body armor and the evidence was turned over to federal authorities.  Byrd was charged with federal drug and other crimes.  The District Court denied a motion to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search, and the Third Circuit affirmed because Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement and he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car.

The Supreme Court heard the case and unanimously held that 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.  The Court indicated that property principles inform the reasoning behind this conclusion, even though the driver does not have a property interest in the car.  A driver who has the permission of the lawful possessor or owner of the car has complete “dominion and control” over the property and can rightfully exclude others from it.  The Court had previously found in Jones v. United States, 362 U.S. 257 (1960) that a defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the apartment in which he was staying temporarily with the owner’s permission, despite the fact the apartment was not lawfully his.

Instrumental to this case is the fact Byrd had lawful possession of the car.  The rental contract said that a violation may result in coverage being void and the renter would be fully responsible for any loss or damage, but the breach in contract would not affect the reasonable expectation of privacy. In contrast, a driver of a stolen vehicle lacks a reasonable expectation of privacy in a car he or she may be driving.

Your privacy rights are extensive under the Constitution and you need an experienced Jacksonville criminal defense attorney to defend unlawful searches by police.  Contact the Law Office of David M. Goldman, PLLC for a consultation.

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