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An unauthorized driver’s right to privacy in a rental car

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision on Fourth Amendment rights for rental car drivers. If a driver who is not listed on a rental contract—but who has permission from the authorized driver to use the car—gets pulled over, are they protected from unreasonable search and seizure?

The case

The case in question is Byrd v. United States. In this case, Latasha Reed rented a car in New Jersey—listing herself as the only driver on the rental contract. She then allowed Terrance Byrd to use the vehicle. He put some items in the trunk and then drove to Pennsylvania. On the way, he was pulled over.

Byrd indicated to the authorities that he had a marijuana cigarette in the car. The police also discovered that he had a criminal record—including weapons and drug convictions. Upon determining that Byrd was not on the car’s rental contract, they took the opportunity to search the vehicle. In the trunk, they found 49 bricks of heroin and body armor. Byrd was charged with federal drug crimes.

The ruling

The question the Supreme Court considered was whether the authorities had the right to search the rental car in the first place. In a unanimous decision, it found that if the authorized driver of a rental car freely permits another individual to use the vehicle, that person now has “lawful possession and control” of the vehicle, and by effect has the “right to exclude” others from the property.

Unresolved issues

In this case, the prosecution also alleged that Byrd tricked Reed into renting the car for him—since his criminal record would have prevented him from renting the car himself. The question remains whether obtaining a rental car through subterfuge constitutes a criminal offense. The Supreme Court has sent this question back down to the lower courts to resolve.

Nonetheless, the ruling in this case has important implications on the rights of rental car drivers. Even if your name isn’t on the rental contract, you can still have a reasonable expectation of privacy behind the wheel.

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