Sometimes major victories for civil liberties begin with the most insignificant actions. In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for the breaking and entering of a pool hall in Panama City, FL. Gideon had an eighth-grade education and a lengthy acquaintance with the criminal justice system. As he was charged with a felony, he asked the trial judge to appoint counsel for him. It was denied. Two years later the case made its way to the US Supreme Court and it was decided that right to counsel was a fundamental right and an indigent defendant had a right to have counsel appointed by the state. Today, the Supreme Court reinforced the Fourth Amendment in a similar case with an unlikely central figure.
In September 2014, Terrence Byrd decided he wanted to take a drive. As he didn’t have a car, he borrowed a car his girlfriend–in a sign of the times, he had been with his girlfriend for 17 years and they had five children together–had rented. Byrd was not on the rental agreement and the rental agreement stated that the only drivers permitted had to be listed on the agreement. Mr. Byrd departed dystopic New Jersey and headed for points west. He was driving on I-81 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he drew the suspicions of a Pennsylvania state trooper David Long. Long noted that Byrd was driving a rental car with the seat in heavily reclined position. His hands were suspiciously at the 10-and-2 position. What was most damning was that he was driving within the speed limit but stayed in the left lane too long after passing a truck. Trooper Long pulled Byrd over.
Long examined the rental contract, found Byrd was not on it, his check of Byrd revealed he had drug and weapons convictions and so Trooper Long decided to search the car based on the fact that Byrd wasn’t an authorized driver. Long didn’t find anything…except body armor and 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk. Byrd was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He appealed contending that even though he wasn’t on the rental agreement he did not surrender some expectation of privacy in the case of a police search. The Third Circuit upheld his conviction and the case headed to the Supreme Court.
When the case was argued in January, it was obvious that many of the justices had grave concerns about the theory advocated by the government.
Today, a unanimous Supreme Court vacated Byrd’s conviction. Some highlights:
1. 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.
(c) The Government’s contention that drivers who are not listed on rental agreements always lack an expectation of privacy in the car rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.
(2) The Government also contends that Byrd had no basis for claiming an expectation of privacy in the rental car because his driving of that car was so serious a breach of Reed’s rental agreement that the rental company would have considered the agreement “void” once he took the wheel. But the contract says only that the violation may result in coverage, not the agreement, being void and the renter’s being fully responsible for any loss or damage, and the Government fails to explain what bearing this breach of contract, standing alone, has on expectations of privacy in the car.
Beyond the bizarre reason for stopping Byrd (hands at 10-and-2…c’mon, you’re killing me) the principle asserted by the government had the potential for a lot of mischief. Did you ever live in an apartment or rental house and were not listed on the lease? Even though the lease requires all regular residents to be listed? This is actually a pretty common occurrence. Under the government’s theory, the police could search the living area of a person who was not on a housing lease without a warrant.
Significantly, Collins vs. Virginia was argued on the same day as Byrd. In that case, police entered private property and looked under a motorcycle cover to see if it was a stolen motorcycle they were seeking. Here they used the “automobile exception” to the Fourth rather than the “10-and-2” exception. The government didn’t get a very favorable reception in that case either. If we look at Byrd, and the Rodriquez case in 2015 where the Court said police cannot extend a traffic stop in order to have a drug dog come to the scene unless they have probable cause of a drug offense, we’re seeing the Court holding a hard line on the Fourth Amendment.
This was a solid decision by the Court and it was great to see that Justices from Gorsuch to Sotomayor could look at the government’s case and think it was nuts.