Person in lawful possession & control of rental car has reasonable expectation of privacy: USSC

The United State Supreme Court recently ruled that, as a general rule, a person in lawful possession and control of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement does not list such person as an authorized driver.

“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”, a unanimous Court said.

The Court rejected the Government’s contention that drivers who are not listed on rental agreements always lack an expectation of privacy in the car, as such contention rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.

The Court, however, rejected that a rental car’s sole occupant always has an expectation of privacy based on mere possession and control as it would, without qualification, include thieves or others who have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Petitioner’s friend got a rental car in her name and then allowed petitioner to drive the car without disclosing him as an additional driver in her rental agreement. Petitioner stored personal belongings in the rental car’s trunk and was later pulled for a possible traffic violation. After police learned that the car was rented, that petitioner was not listed as an authorized driver, and that petitioner had prior drug and weapons convictions, police proceeded to search the car and discovered body armor and 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk. The District Court denied petitioner’s motion to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an un-lawful search, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

The Court remanded the case back to the lower court on the following issues, (i) to address in the first instance the Government’s argument that a general rule, that a person in lawful possession and control of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement does not list such person as an authorized driver, is inapplicable because, in the circumstances here, petitioner had no greater expectation of privacy than a car thief; and (ii) to determine whether, even if petitioner had a right to object to the search, probable cause justified it in any event.

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