As a general rule, someone in otherwise lawful possession and control of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement does not list him or her as an authorized driver.
In September 2014, Pennsylvania State Troopers pulled over a car driven by petitioner Terrence Byrd. Byrd was the only person in the car. In the course of the traffic stop the troopers learned that the car was rented and that Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement as an authorized driver. For this reason, the troopers told Byrd they did not need his consent to search the car, including its trunk where he had stored personal effects. A search of the trunk uncovered body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.
The evidence was turned over to federal authorities, who charged Byrd with distribution and possession of heroin with the intent to distribute and possession of body armor by a prohibited person. Byrd moved to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search. The District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied the motion and on appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. Both courts concluded that, because Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement, he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car. Based on this conclusion, it appeared that both the District Court and Court of Appeals deemed it unnecessary to consider whether the troopers had probable cause to search the car.
Was it proper for the lower court to deny the motion to suppress the evidence?
The Court held that as a general rule, someone in otherwise lawful possession and control of a rental car had a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement did not list him or her as an authorized driver. However, a remand was necessary to address the government's argument that the general rule did not apply to petitioner in the circumstances presented, particularly, an unauthorized driver of a rental car, especially as it was unclear from the record whether the government's inferences painted an accurate picture of what occurred. The Court noted that the lower court was not required to assess petitioner's reasonable expectation of privacy before addressing the other aspects of the merits of the Fourth Amendment claim because Fourth Amendment standing was subsumed under substantive Fourth Amendment doctrine and was not a jurisdictional question.