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Motor vehicle searches: 5 FAQs on Supreme Court cases

In his song Cars Are Cars, Paul Simon wrote of someone who “once had a car that was more like a home.” Simon wasn’t referring to a motor home and reasonable expectation of privacy against police searches; his concerns were more existential, about feeling at home in a world filled with so many strangers.

On a concrete level, however, “cars are cars” in another sense: they (along with other vehicles such as motorcycles) are the subject of the so-called “automobile exception” to the usual requirement under the Fourth Amendment that offers must get a warrant before they can search someone’s property.

In this post, we will use a Q & A format to inform you about two recent cases in the U.S. Supreme Court on the scope of the automobile exception.

What is the “automobile exception”?

The automobile exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment involves an assertion by law enforcement that a warrantless search of a vehicle is allowed because the vehicle is mobile. As long as officers have probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a crime, they may try to claim that the search was permissible.

The U.S. Supreme Court has examined this contention in numerous cases, including two cases in the current term. The cases are Byrd v. United States and Collins v. Virginia.

What rights do drivers of rental cars have?

In Byrd v. United States, the driver of a rental car was pulled over for not moving back into the right lane after passing another vehicle. The driver (Byrd) had permission to drive the car from the person who rented it, but his name was not on the rental agreement.

The state trooper proceeded to search the vehicle without the driver’s consent. The trooper found large quantities of heroin, as well as body armor. This evidence led to federal charges against Byrd, who was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court rule by a unanimous vote that the search was impermissible under the Fourth Amendment. The Court said someone who has the renter’s permission to be driving a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy, even without having his or her name on the rental agreement.

Does the Supreme Court’s Byrd ruling mean that charges against the driver in that case must be dismissed?

No. The Supreme Court sent the case back down to a lower court to determine two factual issues. One issue is whether the driver did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because he supposedly misled the rental car company. Prosecutors alleged that Byrd misled the rental company by getting someone else to rent the car for him, since a criminal record would have precluded Byrd from renting on his own behalf.

The other factual issue is whether, under all the circumstances, law enforcement officers had probable cause to believe the rental vehicle contained evidence of a crime.

What about vehicles that are parked near a private residence? When can they be searched without a warrant?

The Supreme Court is considering this question in a case called Collins v. Virginia. The Court heard oral arguments in the case in January and is expected to rule before its term concludes in June.

What are the facts of the Collins case?

Collins concerns a motorcyclist who drove at more than 100 mph while eluding law enforcement. Police went to a private home where a suspect named Ryan Collins spent a few nights a week. They approached a motorcycle parked in the driveway and lifted a tarp over the vehicle, allowing them to see the license plate and vehicle ID.

This information enabled law enforcement to determine that the motorcycle was stolen property and led to charges against Collins for possessing stolen goods.

The central question in the case is whether lifting the tarp without a warrant was justified under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

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