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The Supreme Court is unanimous

May 17, 2018

Sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court can toss you a curveball.

On Monday, the Court issued its decision in Byrd v. United States.  I was shocked — SHOCKED, I say! — that it was a 9-0 decision in favor of Mr. Byrd.

Terrence Byrd was driving a car that his girlfriend had rented. Byrd’s name was not on the rental agreement. A Pennsylvania state trooper pulled Byrd over, gave him a warning for driving in the left lane and then searched the car, believing that he didn’t need Byrd’s consent because Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement. Unfortunately for Byrd, the search uncovered body armor and 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk. He was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The case raised an interesting question: does the driver of a rental car who is not listed on the rental agreement have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car?

A unanimous Court rejected the federal government’s argument that a driver who is not listed on the rental agreement can never have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car, because the rental company has not given him permission to use it.  Such a view, the Court held, “rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.” In the Court’s estimation, whether someone has an expectation of privacy in a car shouldn’t hinge on whether the person who gave him or her permission to drive it owns the car or rented it.

The Court also rejected the government’s argument that Byrd could not have had an expectation of privacy in the rental car because driving the car violated the rental agreement that Reed had signed. “As anyone who has rented a car knows, car-rental agreements are filled with long lists of restrictions” – everything from not driving on unpaved roads to not talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving. At least for Fourth Amendment purposes, the justices concluded, “there is no meaningful difference between the authorized-driver provision” and the other provisions of the rental agreement that the government agrees “do not eliminate an expectation of privacy.”

Byrd is not completely in the clear yet, however. The Court sent the matter back to the trial court to consider whether the government could prevail on two other grounds: whether Byrd still had no expectation of privacy because he had used Reed to mislead the rental company, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to rent the car himself because of his prior criminal record, and was therefore no different from a car thief; and whether – putting everything else aside – the police had probable cause to search the car because they believed it contained evidence of a crime.

But it’s nice to know that nine learned people in black robes can all agree on something.

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