Byrd v. United States, No. 16-1371 (S. Ct.) (May 14, 2018).

Something seemed amiss in petitioner Byrd’s driving, according to Pennsylvania State Troopers who stopped him and, on discovering that he was not an authorized driver of the rental vehicle he occupied, searched the trunk, where 49 bricks of heroin and body armor were found.  The federal district court in Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals denied Byrd’s motion to suppress the fruits of an unlawful search, observing that Byrd’s failure to be shown on the contract as an authorized driver of the rental car negated any expectation of privacy.

The Supreme Court has disagreed, holding that the expectation of privacy that is central to determinations of whether searches comport with the Fourth Amendment cannot be destroyed by tangential questions such as the insurance consequences of permitting an unauthorized driver to operate a rental car.

Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures is essential to liberty, the Court observed, reflecting on the Framers’ concern with the indignities of general warrants that, among other matters, precipitated rebellion against the Crown.  

While privacy expectations in an automobile may be diminished, the more salient question is whether any search violates a Fourth Amendment interest, which requires examination of privacy interests, which need not, but certainly may be, grounded in common law property concepts.  While an individual need not have a common law property interest in a place to be searched to claim an expectation of privacy, it does not follow that legitimate presence alone confers Fourth Amendment rights. While not susceptible of precise and exhaustive definition, the Court observed that privacy expectations must come from outside the Fourth Amendment, either through property concepts or through societal recognition.  

Thus where rights of exclusion attach to possession or control, reasonable expectations of privacy flow from those rights of exclusion, and this principle controls the outcome for Byrd.

The Court declined to indulge either party’s “always” or “never” arguments concerning the rights of unauthorized drivers, finding the parties’ positions to be too broad or too restrictive.

A legitimate presence in an automobile will not of necessity confer a legitimate interest in prohibiting a search of a glove compartment, the Court has previously held, but from this it does not follow that Byrd had only the interests of a passenger, which he would have been had the authorized driver been behind the wheel.   In the Court’s earlier case, the Court recognized an interest in mere presence but the accused in that case did not argue that presence included an interest in freedom from search of the connects of the vehicle.

The exercise of dominion and control, and the right to exclude, are critical determinants that exist without respect to restrictions in the rental agreement, which has little bearing on the driver’s expectation of privacy, a point agreed to by the government.

Although the Court’s property and contract analysis might have provided some comfort to Byrd, the victory of recognition of his privacy interests at the Supreme Court does not conclude the matter.  Notwithstanding dominion and control, and rights of exclusion, was Byrd’s status, because of potential subterfuge in arranging the rental, no better than that of a thief, which would vitiate all expectations of privacy?  Were the officers in possession of sufficient information to believe that at the car contained evidence of a crime, thereby legitimizing a warrantless search under established automobile exceptions case law?

Both questions remain for future development on remand.

One concurring justice noted that the majority would have done well to be more definite in determining when an automobile might fairly be said to be an “effect” for Fourth Amendment purposes, to which privacy expectations might attach.    Another would not disregard the rental agreement nor the circumstances obtaining the rental as sources of information bearing on the availability of a Fourth Amendment claim.

Byrd v. United States, No. 16-1371. S.Ct. May 14, 2018

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