Supreme Court

SCOTUS Says Non-Authorized Rental Car Drivers Do Not Automatically Forfeit Their Fourth Amendment Rights

Fourth Amendment advocates score a limited victory in Byrd v. U.S.


U.S. Supreme Court

Fourth Amendment advocates scored a limited though still important victory today when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that non-authorized drivers of rental cars do not automatically forfeit their Fourth Amendment rights to a reasonable expectation of privacy inside such vehicles.

The case is Byrd v. United States. In 2014 a woman named Latasha Reed rented a car in New Jersey. She then gave the keys to her fiancé, Terrence Byrd. While driving the rental car in Pennsylvania, Byrd was pulled over for a possible traffic infraction. The officers on the scene asserted that because Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement, they did not need to obtain his permission before searching the car—which is something that they would have needed to do had he been the authorized driver. Their subsequent search of the trunk turned up body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.

Under the federal government's theory of the case, explained Justice Anthony Kennedy in his ruling today, "drivers who are not listed on rental agreements always lack an expectation of privacy in the automobile based on the rental company's lack of authorization alone." But that position, Kennedy insisted, "rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment's protections."

As Kennedy pointed out, "car-rental agreements are filled with long lists of restrictions. Examples include prohibitions on driving the car on unpaved roads or driving while using a handheld cellphone. Few would contend that violating provisions like these has anything to do with a driver's reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car." Yet that contention would seem to follow naturally if the Court adopted the federal government's sweeping argument and followed it to its natural conclusion.

The Supreme Court unanimously refused to adopt the federal government's sweeping argument. "As a general rule," the Court declared, "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."

This counts as a win for Byrd and his lawyers. But it does not count as total victory. That's because Kennedy's ruling concluded by remanding the case back down to the lower court, which was instructed to consider two additional arguments raised by the government: first, whether the search might still be ruled legal on grounds of probable cause; and second, whether "one who intentionally uses a third party to procure a rental car by a fraudulent scheme for the purpose of committing a crime is no better situated than a car thief." In other words, Byrd still faces the real possibility of losing in his ultimate quest to have the evidence against him thrown out.

Fourth Amendment advocates, however, should generally be pleased. The upshot of today's decision is that the Supreme Court has made it a little bit more difficult for law enforcement officials to search certain vehicles without a warrant.

The Supreme Court's opinion in Byrd v. United States is available here.

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  1. Americans should thank Justice Kennedy for this one.

    Did he mock the police who asserted that one of the factors that led them to stop the vehicle was that the driver was holding the steering wheel properly? That might be too much for libertarians to to ask of a Republican-appointed justice, but Justice Kennedy might be far enough removed from right-wing partisanship to do it.

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    3. Did he mock the police who asserted that one of the factors that led them to stop the vehicle was that the driver was holding the steering wheel properly?

      Sounds like they had been surveilling the guy and he was being a very careful driver.

      Not sure why they didn’t just pull him over for “illegal lane usage” and made some shit up about him swerving. Any time the fucks in Arkansas wanted to pull me over, that’s the line they would use. Then they’d threaten me with impound if I didn’t “let” them search the car.

      1. If I recall correctly, the police were parked alongside the Turnpike and started to tail this driver for ostensible reasons that included ‘he was holding the steering with two hands, in the position taught in driver education classes.’

        1. New Jersey is a plant leaf prohibition State. When the Prohibition Party was writing the Constitution, Americans consumed 6 times as much heroin per capita as European countries like France. If NJ politicians and cops weren’t so hung up on prohibitionism as a pretext for asset-forfeiture looting there would probably not have been any heroin involved. Now that the judiciary is remanding the case, the case smacks of some clique of prosecutors and lawyers reselling slightly used evidence.

  2. If I let Joe borrow my truck, and Joe then gives the keys to Bob without asking or telling me, and Bob drives it off (without me or Joe inside), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the cops to, having pulled Bob (in my truck) over, arrest him for grand theft auto and take him to the station. Especially if they can verify that I never gave Bob permission to drive my truck.

    The situation changes if me or Joe are in the truck when Bob gets pulled over. The article doesn’t say whether or not Reed was in the car with Byrd, so I don’t know which situation it was.

    So I guess what I’m getting at is this: if Reed was in the car, I think the court got it right. If Reed was not in the car, then Byrd was driving the vehicle without the owner’s permission and without the authorized user even nearby, and in that case the cops acted wrongly in searching the car before booking him and trying to locate the legitimate user.

    That said, I won’t be surprised if, in the future, cops just call the rental agency and say “hey, we found one of your cars being driven by someone that’s not on the agreement. Want us to book ’em?”

    1. Your assumption is that the driver stole it. I’d say let the cops turn that into a bet; if they are wrong and the driver does have permission, then they go to jail for kidnapping, false arrest, etc.

      1. My “assumption” is two-fold.

        (A) “Borrowing without permission” is theft.
        (B) “Borrowing” is a non-transferable right. That is, if John lends his car to Joe, Joe cannot then lend his car to Jack. Jack must go back to John to borrow the car.

        And as I said, if Reed was present, that changes things.

        1. Your assumption is that the driver borrowed it without permission.

          I already said that once. It will be interesting to see your next attempt at pretending you didn’t read it.

          1. … that’s not an assumption, that’s kind of a central fact to the case.

          2. The hypothetical is that the driver did not have permission from the owner to use the car, because he did not.

            1. If that’s what they said, I stand corrected. But I understood the second driver to loan it to the third driver, which is not automatically theft.

              1. The rentrr had no legal authorization to loan the vehicle to anyone else.

                I don’t think it has to rise to proven charge of theft, just a reasonable suspicion that a theft may have occurred.

                1. Loaning rentals is common. It may violate terms of service, but that doesn’t make it a crime. I imagine most renters violate their terms of service one way or another.

            2. Perhaps. But it still does not rise to the level of GTA, nor abdication of his 4th amendment rights.

              His name is Dante Pignetti!

            3. The driver didn’t have permission from the owner to *drive* the car. The rental agreement doesn’t say anything about other use.

              Let’s look at a couple of hypotheticals:

              Instead of driving the car in Pennsylvania, what if the car were parked at a mall in Pennsylvania? Byrd is sitting in the driver’s seat, listening to the radio, while Reed is in the mall shopping. Can the cops search the car?

              What if the rental agreement forbids smoking, and Reed is parked at the mall puffing on a cigar? Does this violation of the agreement mean that they can search it?

              What if the car is parked on a dirt road, obviously having been driven in violation of the rental agreement, with Reed sitting in the driver’s seat? Can they search?

              What if instead of Reed sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car, instead the cops come across Byrd, driving down a dirt road, smoking a cigarette, talking on a cell phone? Do those three violations of the agreement mean that Byrd loses the right to deny consent to search?

        2. Even in that case I Joe would be at fault. If he’s lending improperly, but implied that he had the right to lend to Bob, then Joe is the one in trouble.

          And in no case should that be construed as Grand Theft Auto anyway.

          1. But the question that does justify a probable cause for a search?

            1. I would say no. That’s not what the law will say.

              But, if the car was stolen then the only crime the cops have evidence for is a stolen car. Other than a ‘search incident to arrest’ (and that, in a strict sense, still shouldn’t involve the vehicle as the perp should be in custody by that point) there’s no cause for the vehicle to be searched – that’s searching for evidence of more crimes – crimes the cops do not have probable cause to believe have been committed.

              Indeed, they wouldn’t even be able to point to a specific evidence they are searching for if asked. ‘We’re looking for evidence of super-duper grand theft auto’? There could be someone tied up in the trunk – unless they heard banging or something, there’s no reason for them to open the trunk. Just tow the car and inform the owner.

          2. Even in that case I Joe would be at fault.
            Yep. But that’s the sort of thing that isn’t sorted at the stop, it’s sorted out at the station.

        3. Borrowing without permission is not theft. Not legally anyway.

    2. 1. Reed was in fact NOT in the car. (This is relevant to some of the remand questions but not to your legal analysis.)

      2. Permission to drive a rental car is governed entirely by the wording of the contract. According to that contract, Reed had permission to drive the car. If Reed let anyone else drive the car, the INSURANCE COVERAGE built into the contract became void but there are no other penalties. In other words, the rental company created a disincentive for allowing other drivers but did not explicitly forbid it.

      3. Going all the way back to your first hypothetical though, you might think it’s reasonable for the police to arrest Bob for theft of your car but the charge will never stick and even a half-trained first-year cop will know it. If Bob can claim that he believed (rightly or wrongly) that Joe had the authority to grant Bob permission, the intent element of the crime is missing. (Other legal elements are also missing but that’s the important one for your hypothetical.)

      You might have a civil claim against Joe for improperly loaning out your car, especially if you were explicit in denying him that permission, but you have no claim either civil or criminal against Bob.

    3. How do the cops know that you lent the car to someone who then lent it to someone else? How would the cops even know that the driver wasn’t you?

      Would it not be more reasonable to assume that, absent a report of the vehicle being stolen, that the driver has permission? Far more people lend vehicles out to others than steal them.

      ‘Probable Cause’ doesn’t mean ‘its possible that a crime is being committed’, it means that one *probably is* – and when it comes to vehicles and owner’s permission to use them, its far more probable that the driver has that permission than not.

  3. The upshot of today’s decision is that the Supreme Court has made it a little bit more difficult for law enforcement officials to search certain vehicles without a warrant.

    I would quibble over whether “a little bit more difficult” should be “a miniscule bit” or “an infinitesimal bit” – the cops always have the “probable cause” dodge and the “ignorance of the law is a perfectly cromulent excuse for the cops” dodge to fall back on.

  4. “Their subsequent search of the trunk turned up body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.”

    So, do we know if this belonged to the designated renter? Just curious…

    How do the cops know who is the authorized renter is? I routinely rent while on business and these days I never receive a written contract at the time of rental. All that shit is online, yo.

  5. What is the unauthorized renter says, “that shit belongs to the authorized renter.” Does the 4th amendment get reinstated retroactively?

  6. “Their subsequent search of the trunk turned up body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.”

    Body armor is illegal? Why? Also, not that SCROTUS has ruled against the piggly-wigglies, does he get his heroin back?

    1. Body Armor is illegal, because if you’re wearing it they’re afraid cops will have a harder time shooting you.

      This is actually I believe the reason, after some case in California where some bank robbers wore home made body armor.

      1. Body armor is legal to purchase and possess in every state in the US. In a few states (e.g. Kentucky), it is a crime to wear or possess body armor during the commission of another crime.

    2. Why sure the cops will hand Mr. Byrd his heroin – and then arrest him because it’s now in plain sight.

  7. Brick of heroin? Is that the standard unit of measure?

  8. Good.

    Now, can we prosecute the police who manufactured this legal argument on the side of the road? The position of the state here is so obviously and blatantly mistaken it has to go beyond good faith. Certainly at least a large lawsuit should be entertained.

    Without probable cause, the only crime they can suspect this driver of is stealing the car. That does not require a search of the car to verify.

  9. What happened to the other brick?

    1. It’s the vig.

  10. I seriously can’t believe it was unanimous

    1. I can. This is a pretty blatant violation of rights.

      What’s next? The police see someone on the street and say, “I suspect you stole that coat. Now I can search your pockets!”?

      The provenance of the car does not give the police any right to search it whatsoever, until and unless the owner of the car gives it to them, or they have probable cause. I found it very unsurprising that it was unanimous.

  11. Kennedy ruled? Surely you mean the Supreme Court ruled and Kennedy wrote the opinion?

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