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The unauthorized driver and the Bill of Rights

January 2, 2018

Terrence Byrd was driving a rental car.  His long-time girlfriend had rented it, and he was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement.  A state trooper saw him driving and was suspicious because — and I am not making this up — Byrd was holding the steering wheel at the “10 and 2” position that driving instructors recommend, and because he was sitting far back in his seat. When the trooper decided that Byrd didn’t move over to the right fast enough after passing a slower vehicle, he stopped the vehicle.  And searched it.  And found body armor.  And 49 bricks of heroin.

Byrd is now serving a ten-year sentence in federal prison, but he may have a chance at freedom.  This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether the search violated Byrd’s rights under the 4th Amendment.

According to this article in the New York Times, the Court will be called upon to decide whether a driver whose name is not on the rental agreement has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the vehicle.

Byrd’s lawyers assert that “widespread noncompliance with authorized driver provisions is an open secret.”  Moreover, as the ACLU points out, the decision is likely to have an significant impact on black and Latino drivers: “African-Americans generate over four times as many rental retail transactions as otherwise comparable Caucasians,” while blacks are both more likely to be pulled over than whites and are more likely to be searched.

The government maintains that “It is common knowledge that car rental is a personal transaction that does not make the car available for general enjoyment, and straw man disserve society by frustrating law-enforcement efforts to prevent smuggling and other crimes.”

The Court should issue a decision before its term ends in June.

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