Violating a Rental Car Agreement Doesn’t Give Police A Right To Violate One’s Constitutional Rights
In September of 2014 a lady rented a car in New Jersey while Terrence Byrd waited outside. The signed rental car agreement warned that permitting an unauthorized driver to drive the car would violate the agreement. The lady gave the keys to Byrd once she left the Budget car-rental facility. Byrd stored personal belongings in the trunk and left alone for Pittsburgh. Byrd was stopped for a traffic infraction. Get this; according to the Supreme Court Order the Penn State Trooper that pulled Byrd over was “suspicious of Byrd because he was driving with his hands at the “10 and 2” position on the steering wheel, sitting far back from the steering wheel, and driving a rental car.” Put another way, he said that Byrd looked suspicious without articulating that Byrd violated any laws. Penn State Troopers learned that Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver AND that he had prior drug and weapons convictions. Byrd told the Troopers he had a blunt in the car and offered to get it for the Troopers which the Troopers agreed to. The Troopers told Byrd they didn’t need his consent to search the car and the trunk. The Troopers searched the trunk and discovered body armor and 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk. The case was turned over to the Feds and they charged him with distribution and possession of heroin with intent to distribute and possession of body armor by a prohibited person.
Byrd’s motion to suppress the evidence under the theory of fruit of the poisonous tree was denied. The Court reasoned that because Byrd was NOT listed on the rental agreement, he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car. On May 14, 2018 the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and found that Byrd did in fact have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The Court specifically held, “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.” This is good sound reasoning. Otherwise, one could effectively contract another’s (in this case, Byrd’s) constitutional rights away by violating the terms of an agreement. Put another way, just because a civil contract is violated doesn’t mean you have sacrificed or waived your constitutional rights!
The Court took a practical approach and added, “As anyone who has rented a car knows, car-rental agreements are filled with long lists of restriction.” Put another way, we know you don’t read the 28 page contract.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to consider whether Byrd had an expectation of privacy even though he used the lady to get the car because he could not rent the car himself OR whether the Troopers had probable cause to search the car because they believed it contained evidence of a crime.
“Few protections are as essential to individual liberty as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.”.