U.S. V. Byrd – Privacy Rights V. A Car Rental Agreement

Posted On Wednesday, January 3, 2018
By: Christopher A. Iacono

What (will) happen?

Next week, the United States Supreme Court will hear argument in the matter of U.S. v. Byrd (No. 16-1371), which presents a showdown between privacy rights and a car rental agreement. More specifically, the Court will determine whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when the driver has the renter’s permission to use the vehicle but is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement. 

The Rundown

In the summer of 2014, Mr. Byrd was driving a rental car on the highway in Pennsylvania. His fiancée had rented the vehicle, and he was using it with her permission. Mr. Byrd, however, was not listed on the rental agreement as an authorized driver. A Pennsylvania State Trooper noticed Mr. Byrd and began to follow him.  Ultimately, Mr. Byrd was pulled over by the Trooper for failing to move into the right lane fast enough after passing a slow moving truck. During the course of the traffic stop, the Trooper learned that Mr. Byrd was not an authorized driver listed on the rental agreement. Because Mr. Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver, the Trooper advised him that he was free to search the vehicle without his consent. The search of the vehicle discovered body armor and 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk.  After the District Court refused to suppress the evidence, Mr. Byrd was convicted of federal drug charges and sentenced to ten years in prison. 

Mr. Byrd appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s ruling. While acknowledging that a split of authority exists among the Circuit Courts as to whether the occupant of a rental vehicle has a Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy when the occupant is not named on the rental agreement, the Third Circuit found its position on the issue to be clear: No expectation of privacy exists for an occupant of a rental vehicle who is not named on the rental agreement. See U.S. v. Kennedy, 638 F.3d 159 (3d Cir. 2011). Accordingly, the Court held that Mr. Byrd had no expectation of privacy and, therefore, he had no standing to challenge the search of the vehicle. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the issue on September 28, 2017.

For the Record

Mr. Byrd argued that “wide spread non-compliance with authorized-driver provision is an open secret” which is why rental agreements “often specify that the renter will carry a greater risk of loss when an unlisted driver operates the vehicle.” Attorneys for the United States argued 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 car rentals disserves society by frustrating law enforcement efforts to prevent smuggling and other crimes.”  In a brief supporting the federal government, 15 states argued that criminals often use cars rented by others to transport drugs, victims of human trafficking and unauthorized immigrants. The American Civil Liberties Union and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a brief arguing that a decision is very likely to have a significant effect on the poor and people of color, as, according to the statistics, these groups are more likely to rent a car, be stopped by police, and to be searched during the stop.  

What Happens Next?

The oral argument before the United States Supreme Court is scheduled for January 9, 2018.