What are you privacy rights when driving a rental car?

Criminal Defense
By Goodwin Como, P.C.

In 2014, a Pennsylvania state trooper spotted 37-year old Terrence Byrd driving down the highway in a rental car. His seat was pushed back, and his hands were at the DMV-approved “10 and 2” position on the steering while. According to the trooper, what he witnessed was sufficiently suspicious to warrant pulling Byrd over.

Upon so doing, the trooper learned that Byrd’s fiancée had rented the vehicle he was driving. Although she had given him permission to drive the car, he was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental contract. The trooper used this condition as grounds to search the rental car without the driver’s consent. In the process, he found 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk. The court found Byrd guilty of federal drug charges and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

But did the state trooper have the right to search Byrd’s vehicle in the first place? Was this a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure? Does the search fall outside the scope of Byrd’s expectation to privacy?

The Supreme Court is currently considering these questions, and privacy experts around the country await the outcome. If Byrd loses his appeal, privacy advocates are concerned that it could give law enforcement officers a carte blanche to search any rental vehicle with an unauthorized driver. In addition, it is disproportionately lower-income Americans who rely on rental cars as a regular form of transportation–since they are unable to afford their own cars. Some experts are concerned about the discriminatory repercussions the court’s ruling could have on this strata of society.

Fourth Amendment supporters will take a collective deep breath and hope for the best.