Supreme Court

If you monitor the U.S. Supreme Court for cases that the court has agreed to hear (like one member of our team), you may have seen that the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case about rental cars recently. And it's not the first time the Supreme Court has done so. So what's the Constitutional conundrum that has the U.S. Supreme Court considering rental cars and the 4th amendment? We'll give you a hint: it is the result of many bad life choices.

What Does the Fourth Amendment Address?

For those who haven't thought actively about the Constitution or high school civics in years, the Fourth Amendment is the one about unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, including a "reasonable expectation of privacy" that was defined much more recently by the Courts.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. 

So how do rental cars get involved? It boils down to drugs and other illegal activities, like many other rental car stories. When I told AutoSlash founder Jonathan that I was writing a blog post about the Supreme Court, drugs, and rental cars he responded:

"Yeah, rental cars and drug dealers go together like peanut butter and jelly."

Sadly, there are many, many news stories about drugs and rental cars; I personally received this Breaking Bad rental car in El Paso with used Tyvek safety suits.

Used Tyvek safety suits and "candy" wrappers had me refusing this car.

The Background

The case is Byrd v. United States and here's the Cliff Notes version. Mr. Byrd's girlfriend (Ms. Reed) rented a car for him from Avis in New Jersey but didn't put him on the contract, likely because he was ineligible to rent. That's flashing sign number one of rental car fraud and makes Mr. Byrd an unauthorized user. Byrd and Reed (the girlfriend) immediately made multiple Do Not Rent lists once the original news story broke.

Mr. Byrd was driving through Pennsylvania, minding his own. But like Don Fernando, he had a secret ... an important secret. A police officer saw him driving suspiciously, with two of the suspicious factors of "holding the wheel at 10 and 2" and "driving a rental car". 

The AutoSlash team attracts a lot of police attention in Pennsylvania.

Of course, those "suspicious" behaviors are not enough to get pulled over. Driving in the passing lane while not passing* is sufficient reason to get pulled over. We have to thank the police officer for deciding to issue a public reminder on this frequently ignored law. 

* Note to Criminals and All Other Drivers: Keep Right Unless Passing.

When Byrd got pulled over, the cops realized he wasn't an authorized operator. When the cops ran his license, they found that Byrd had an active warrant and Byrd admitted that he recently smoked a "blunt". Byrd's day was going downhill fast.

** This is probably the only time the term "blunt" has been used as a noun in a Supreme Court filing.

The police deemed that a warrant wasn't necessary because he didn't have a right to be driving the car and/or Byrd had consented to the search. Officers then found the heroin and bulletproof vest in the trunk of the car, which was far more serious than the original warrant and the blunt. Given this was a federal issue, Mr. Byrd is currently in year 4 of a 10-year involuntary occupation of the Federal Correctional Institution Hazelton. If the heroin and bulletproof vest in the trunk were to be deemed an illegal search, he would not be incarcerated. 

How Does this Amount to Constitutional Crisis?

Believe it or not, individuals renting cars for unauthorized users and then using the cars in drug deals is a relatively common occurrence.The United States has 11 circuit court of appeals (plus the D.C. Court of Appeals and Federal Court of Appeals) below the U.S. Supreme Court. Seven of those eleven circuits have ruled on appeals of defendants who were unauthorized users of rentals cars and the specific issue of reasonable expectation of privacy / unreasonable search and seizure. The issue is recurring -- the filing lists 23 different cases adjudicated by the federal courts alone. And those seven different circuits managed to come up with three different legal rulings.  

  • The Eighth and Ninth Circuit say an unauthorized driver does have a reasonable expectation of privacy when driving a car without the owner's permission.
  • The Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Circuit say an unauthorized driver does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when driving a car without the owner's permission.
  • The Sixth Circuit says "it depends".

Our Take 

Obviously, rights under the U.S. Constitution can't vary based upon where in the U.S. one is detained, so the Supreme Court is going to address the dispute. We're not lawyers but we're hoping the Court rules as four other Circuits have in the past -- if the actual owner of the property doesn't give an individual permission to occupy the property based upon rental terms and conditions, it's scary to think that individual still has a "reasonable expectation of privacy" while misusing the property. Can you imagine renting part of your home via AirBnB, then someone other than the renter showing up and having a "reasonable expectation of privacy" while committing criminal behaviors? While this case will most likely be of interest to the three major rental car companies, participants in the sharing economy (AirBnB for accommodations and Turo for rental vehicles) also have a vested interest.


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