By: Riona Maharaj, Member-Candidate, J.D. Candidate, May 2019, St. Thomas University School of Law.

Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “Asking questions is an essential part of police investigation. In the ordinary sense a police officer is free to ask a person for identification without implicating the Fourth Amendment.” The Fourth Amendment allows an officer to conduct a traffic stop based on reasonable suspicion a traffic violation has occurred regardless of the officer’s subjective motivations for making the stop.The Supreme Court has established a bright-line rule where any technical violation of a traffic code legitimizes a stop, even if the stop is merely pretext for an investigation of some other crime.  In the ever-changing technological advancements of society individual expectations of privacy have changed.  For example, when an individual is arrested and has a cell phone present officers cannot review the contents of the cell phone without a warrant unless there are exigent circumstances.  Society understands there is an expectation of privacy with regards to cell phones, as individuals have a huge amount of personal information on their cell phones which have been analogized as “minicomputers.” Is there a societal expectation of privacy when an unauthorized driver is driving a rental car and stopped for a traffic violation, and officers search and locate contraband?

Terrence Byrd found himself in exactly such a situation and the constitutional implications warranted his case being heard by the US Supreme Court earlier this January. Byrd was pulled over for violating Pennsylvania’s state law requiring drivers to limit the use of the left-hand lane to passing maneuvers. During the traffic violation stop, Byrd produced an interim New York driver’s license which did not include a photo, and the rental agreement which did not list Byrd as the renter of the vehicle nor as a permitted driver. The officer checked Byrd’s license number, date of birth and name on the computer and the name James Carter was returned. Another officer arrived and attempted with the stopping officer to obtain identification information for Byrd. The officers discovered an outstanding New Jersey warrant, James Carter was an alias, and Byrd’s criminal history which included drug, weapon, and assault charges.  The officers then requested Byrd to exit the vehicle and questioned him about the warrant and alias.  They then asked if Byrd had anything illegal in the vehicle, and permission to search the vehicle.  Heroin and body armor in the trunk of the vehicle were found after Byrd gave consent to the officers.  Byrd was arrested and moved to suppress the evidence from the stop and the search. The District Court held Byrd as the sole occupant of the rental car had no expectation of privacy because he was not listed on the rental agreement.

The Supreme Court will be deciding whether Byrd is entitled to claim the search of the rental car he was unauthorized to drive violated his individual Fourth Amendment rights.  Byrd’s argument is the person who possesses and controls a vehicle with the renter’s permission has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle’s locked trunk.  The State’s argument that Byrd’s assertion of constitutional rights in the rental vehicle is not a personal value recognized by society as reasonable. Further, Byrd took over the rental vehicle in breach of the rental agreement and cannot claim any expectation of privacy in the vehicle which society would regard as objectively reasonable.  There is a circuit split regarding whether a sole occupant of a rental vehicle has a Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy when the occupant is not named in the rental agreement.  When is there a true violation of society’s reasonable expectation of privacy, “is it when one is in the control and possession of a rental vehicle with the rental company’s permission?”  The Supreme Court will have to weigh legal and society’s reasonable expectation of privacy to construct a holding which will fit within society’s reasonable expectation of privacy without violating the Fourth Amendment rights.  The decision is expected within the next few months.