WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s justices put themselves in the driver’s seat Tuesday, hearing arguments in two cases involving vehicle searches, but it was unclear what routes the justices will take to resolve the cases.
One case involved Pennsylvania state troopers’ stop of a rental car driven by a man who wasn’t on the rental agreement. The second involved a police officer’s search for a stolen motorcycle in Virginia.
“One of the things that I think is very important in these types of cases is the ability to give clear guidance not only to the courts but to the police,” Chief Justice Roberts said. Justice Stephen Breyer, when trying to describe a resolution to the case, said he was “looking for something simple.”
The first case involves Terrence Byrd, who was driving his fiancee’s rental car on a Pennsylvania highway when a state trooper pulled him over for an alleged minor traffic violation. He acted nervous during the stop and told troopers he had a marijuana cigarette in the car, and officers decided to search the car.
Because the rental agreement didn’t authorize Byrd to drive the gray Ford Fusion, troopers told him they didn’t need his consent for the search. And when troopers opened the trunk, they found body armor and about 2,500 little bags of heroin. Byrd later acknowledged he planned to sell the drugs for roughly $7,000, and a court sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Byrd’s attorneys argue his case has potential consequences for the 115 million car rentals that take place annually in the United States. They say that if the government wins, police will have an incentive to pull over a rental car driver who commits a traffic violation because police will know they can search the car if the driver isn’t on the rental agreement.
Byrd tried to get the evidence from the search excluded from his case. But a court ruled that because Byrd was an unauthorized driver, he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the car and therefore couldn’t challenge the search using the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches. The Trump administration and courts in several parts of the country agree that’s the right outcome. Other courts disagree.
On Tuesday, Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito seemed to be the most willing to side with the government while Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed strongly sympathetic to Byrd’s argument.
“If we rule that … someone has no expectation of privacy even when the renter has given it to them, then what we’re authorizing is the police to stop every rental car and search every rental car, without probable cause, that might be on the road,” Sotomayor said.
Byrd’s case dates to 2014, when Latasha Reed, with whom he has five children, rented a car from a Budget rental office in New Jersey. Byrd’s lawyers say Reed was his fiancee and the government calls her Byrd’s girlfriend, but both sides agree that the rental agreement didn’t cover Byrd.
Even so, Reed handed him the keys as soon as she left the rental office. He was later pulled over while driving alone near Harrisburg. The reason a trooper gave for pulling Byrd over was that he spent too long in the left lane making a passing maneuver.
The second case the justices heart Tuesday addressed the issue of whether police need a warrant before searching a vehicle on private property outside a home.
Police arrested Austin Collins after an officer walked onto his driveway and pulled back a tarp covering Collins’ motorcycle. It turned out to be stolen. The officer did not have a warrant.
Probing the extent of Virginia lawyer Trevor Cox’s argument in defense of the officer’s action, Roberts used some pop culture references as he wondered how far officers can go in their searches.
“I mean, if you have an automobile in the house … Jay Leno’s house, right, where he’s got dozens of rare cars or the Porsche in Ferris Bueller,” Roberts said, invoking the former NBC Tonight Show host and a scene from the iconic 1980s movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Roberts had the right idea, but the wrong make of car. The car Bueller took for a ride was a Ferrari.