While driving, you can expect a degree of privacy during traffic stops. Police cannot search your car without probable cause. This protection might soon have some new exceptions, however. A traffic stop for one Pennsylvania man in a rental car could potentially lead to fewer 4th Amendment rights on the road.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule in Byrd v. United States, a case that concerns rental agreements and privacy rights across the country. The driver, Byrd, was pulled over for a minor violation in his fiancée’s rental car. His fiancée granted him permission to use the vehicle, which later became a key factor in this case. At the time of the traffic stop, the patrol officer conducted a search of the vehicle because the rental agreement made no mention of his name. Although the officer found contraband in the trunk, the judges must ask whether the search was constitutional at all.
When Supreme Court justices conducted their hearing Tuesday morning, their opinions diverged. Some justices believed that the permission from Byrd’s fiancée should extend some of her rights to him. Others, however, argued that unwritten permission from the renter is not enough evidence for police; therefore a ruling in Byrd’s favor would be impractical. The prosecutor, representing the U.S., insisted that a driver should only have privacy rights in a rental car if their name is on the agreement documentation.
Although Byrd must face consequences for the original traffic violation regardless of this ruling, the constitutionality of the search may mean the difference between 10 years of prison and walking away a free man. A ruling in his favor would also protect the privacy for thousands of drivers who have permission to use a rental car without being in the paperwork.
Fighting unconstitutional searches could involve many complexities like the factors in this case. For that reason, anyone who believes an officer conducted an unlawful search should contact a civil rights attorney to defend their privacy.