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Supreme Court hears Fourth Amendment vehicle cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard two Fourth Amendment [text] cases Tuesday involving the search of motor vehicles. In the first case, Byrd v. United States [argument transcript, PDF], the court heard arguments as to whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when that individual is not listed as an authorized driver in the rental agreement. Terrence Byrd was pulled over by a state trooper for driving in the left lane. The trooper and his partner then searched Byrd's car, which revealed a flak jacket and 49 bricks of heroin. The officers argued that they did not need Byrd's consent because he was not listed as a driver on the rental contract, and therefore, had no reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Byrd argues that the officers did not have probable cause to search the truck, so the evidence should be suppressed.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from warrantless searches in areas in which individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy [background]. Byrd argues that the list of authorized drivers on a rental agreement is intended only for rental companies to collect fees and to shift liability to the driver for accidents; the list has nothing to do with the reasonable expectations of privacy. Further, he argues that he had a property interest in the car because he was using the car with the renter's permission, which should protect him from a threat of a warrantless search.

During oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito seemed to be the most willing to side with the government, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to be sympathetic to Byrd's argument. She stated, "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."

In the second case, Collins v. Virginia [argument transcript, PDF]. Austin Collins eluded the police on multiple occasions by driving away at high speeds in an orange Suzuki motorcycle. Eventually the police discovered the owner of the motorcycle was Collins, and they traveled to his girlfriend's home, where he stayed a few nights per week. An officer walked onto the driveway, where a motorcycle was parked under an opaque white cover with only one of the wheels showing. The officer lifted the cover to check the license plate, and he confirmed the motorcycle belonged to Collins.

The Fourth Amendment generally requires police to have a warrant to conduct a search, but there are several exceptions to this rule. The "automobile exception" [materials] permits the police to search a vehicle without a warrant if the vehicle is "readily mobile" and the police have probable cause [background] to believe that the automobile contains criminal evidence. The Court must determine whether the automobile exception authorizes an uninvited police officer to enter private property and conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle parked on the driveway near a home.

Collins argues that the motorcycle was in the "curtilage" [LII backgrounder] of the home, which is given the same protection against warrantless searches as the home, and that while people may not have as much of a right to privacy while driving, the lack of privacy does not extend to the driveway and into a person's home. The state countered this argument by stating that "not only has the Supreme Court 'never limited the application of the automobile exception to particular locations,'" but also that the Court "recognized that the automobile exception applies inside the curtilage" in 1938. The trial court and Virginia's highest court both found the officer's actions to be proper.

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