On May 14, 2018, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures protects the driver of a rental car, even if the driver was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement. United States v Byrd, Slip opinion, No. 16-1371 (U.S. 5/14/2018).
Pennsylvania state troopers pulled over driver, who was the sole occupant of the vehicle, for what they deemed to be suspicious behavior while driving. The driver was visibly nervous. Record checks showed him to have prior convictions for weapons and drug charges, as well as an outstanding warrant (but the warrant jurisdiction informed the troopers they would not extradite). The troopers told driver that because he was not listed on the rental agreement, they did not need his consent or a warrant to search the car. They found body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.
“The Court now holds that, as a general rule, 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.” The Court reaffirmed that interpretation of the 4th Amendment is guided both by common law property rights, and by the reasonable expectation of privacy test.
Justice Gorsuch, the first justice appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Trump, joined Justice Thomas in a concurring opinion that questioned whether we should even have a reasonable expectation of privacy test. The reasonable expectation of privacy test protects the right of privacy of people in certain situations, even if they are not the true owner of the property entered, seized or searched. For example, the police cannot spy on a person by wiretapping a telephone booth without a warrant, even though the person does not own the telephone booth or the telephone inside the booth. Justices Gorsuch and Thomas, holding true to their judicial philosophies, would only protect property owners from the awesome power of the United States government.
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