SCOTUS and Searches

The Fourth Amendment remains a constant source of litigation and interpretation before the Supreme Court, and the first week back in session proved to be no different as the Court heard two cases concerning when police can search a vehicle without a warrant.

Byrd v. the United States

Mr. Byrd had asked his fiancée to rent a vehicle, and she put her name on the agreement. He had been waiting outside the rental car place while she did so. Later, he took the rental car on an interstate highway in Pennsylvania and was subsequently pulled over by state troopers for a minor traffic violation. When the officers searched his name, they discovered he had a criminal record, and began searching his vehicle. In the trunk, they discovered a flak jacket and 49 bricks of heroin. At trial, Byrd argued that the troopers had no probable cause to search the trunk, and thus any evidence found should be excluded. The lower courts held that Byrd did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy to the car because he was not an authorized driver listed on the rental agreement.

Before the Court, Byrd’s attorneys argued that the rental agreement does not determine the scope of the Constitutional rights of the defendant, but rather there was a reasonable expectation of privacy when his fiancée – who was on the rental agreement – allowed him to use the vehicle.

The court had a mixed reception, with Kennedy making it clear that Mr. Byrd had bad intentions from the start when he asked his fiancée to put her name on the agreement, rather than his own. Justice Breyer questioned the attorney what the bright-line rule should be, to enable law enforcement to confidently conduct searches. Some justices suggested that unless driving the rental car was in itself a crime, the defendant had an unambiguous expectation of privacy. The state argued that anyone not on the rental agreement did not – although the Chief Justice pointed out the truth that, given how common it must be for those on the rental agreement to give a third party permission to drive, it would matter whether the party had allowed a third party’s use in whether or not there was an expectation of privacy. Justice Sotomayer expressed concerns that, if they allowed the state to prevail, this would give law enforcement unfettered authority to stop anyone driving a rental car. She proclaimed how ridiculous it was that the police stopped him for driving with his hands at a 10 and 2 angle, and emphasized the admission from law enforcement that Byrd was stopped because he was driving a rental vehicle.

The Court has yet to release its ruling, although it is likely to impact law enforcement and how searches are carried out on freeways in the future when it comes out.

Collins v Virginia

This case asks whether the automobile exception in the Fourth Amendment would allow a police officer, without a warrant and without consent, to come onto private property, approach a home and search a vehicle a few feet away from the house, within what is called the ‘curtilage.’ The Supreme Court has previously determined that the police cannot search the curtilage of a home without a warrant – that it is, essentially, part and parcel of the home. This case wanted the court to determine whether the warrant requirement would apply to vehicles within the curtilage.

The vehicle, a motorcycle, had been involved in a police chase that had eluded law enforcement. A subsequent investigation found the motorcycle on the property of the girlfriend of Collins, under a white cover. When the police checked the VIN, they discovered that the bike had been stolen previously out of New York, and Collins was prosecuted for possession of stolen property.

Collins’ lawyer argued that there was no emergency in this case to justify such a search from the police without a warrant. The property was not owned by Collins, although he and his girlfriend shared a child and he stayed with her several times each week. He also argued that the ease with which the vehicle could be moved was irrelevant, citing that cocaine, drugs, and guns were all very mobile, but still required the existence of a warrant before any property could be searched. This seemed to be a very compelling argument for the justices, who subsequently hammered the state’s attorney on this very issue.

It would be surprising if items within the curtilage of a home would not also receive the same treatment under the law of the curtilage itself and demand a warrant; however, the Court has rendered surprising opinions in the past, and it could very well do so again in this matter. Time will tell.

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