Constitutional Protections Extend to Rental Cars

The United States Supreme Court recently issued a decision that held that constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures generally apply to rental cars, even if the driver has not been identified on the rental agreement.  Byrd v. U.S. (2018).

“Few protections are as essential to individual liberty as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Byrd v. U.S.  “Ever mindful of the Fourth Amendment and its history, the Court has viewed with disfavor practices that permit ‘police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person’s private effects.’”  Byrd.  This concern extends to automobiles even though there is a diminished expectation of privacy in automobiles.

A person claiming a constitutional violation must have their own Fourth Amendment rights infringed by the search and seizure, and that question is answered by examining whether the person claiming the constitutional violation had a ‘legitimate expectation of privacy in the premises’ searched.  “One who owns and possesses a car, like one who owns and possesses a house, almost always has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it.”  Byrd.  Those with a right to exclude others, whether from real property or an automobile, have an expectation of privacy.

A defendant who is in wrongful presence at a scene (e.g., a person present in a stolen automobile) will not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.  However, “the mere fact that a driver in lawful possession or control of a rental car is not listed on the rental agreement will not defeat his or her otherwise reasonable expectation of privacy.”  Byrd at 15.

However, the Court left open whether there may be state laws that make possession of a rental car without being on the rental agreement unlawful, and it such cases the driver might be in wrongful possession of the vehicle and without these constitutional protections.  Also, there are several warrant exceptions that apply to all cars, such as a search incident to arrest or an inventory search.  If any of the warrant exceptions would apply to a driver of their own car, they would also apply to a driver of a rental car.