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Supreme Court To Hear Pennsylvania Vehicle Search Case

J. Scott Applewhite
People stand on the plaza of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington to attend arguments, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.

Terrence Byrd 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 nervously during the stop, at one point telling troopers he had a marijuana cigarette in the car, and officers eventually asked to search the vehicle.

But because the rental agreement didn't authorize Byrd to drive the gray Ford Fusion, troopers told him they didn't actually 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.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear argument in two vehicle search cases including Byrd's. His attorneys argue his case has potential consequences for the 115 million car rentals that take place annually in the United States.

The court's decision has the potential to impact, in particular, low-income Americans, a significant portion of car renters, and black and Hispanic drivers, who are more likely to rent cars than white drivers, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers, who filed a brief in the case.

Byrd tried to get the evidence from the search excluded from his case. But a court ruled that because Byrd was an unauthorized driver of the car 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.

Byrd's lawyers say rulings like the one against him mean police can conduct a search whenever they stop a rental car being driven by an unauthorized user, even if they don't believe they will find evidence of a crime in the car.

Byrd's case dates to 2014, when his fiancee Latasha Reed, with whom he has five children, rented a car from a Budget rental office in New Jersey. The government disputes their relationship, calling her Byrd's girlfriend, but both sides agree that the rental agreement limited the car's drivers to Reed, a spouse, co-workers on company business or anyone else who signed an additional form at the time of the rental, though no one did.

Even so, Reed handed over the keys as soon as she left the rental office and Byrd drove the car. He was later pulled over while driving alone near Harrisburg. The reasons the trooper who pulled him over gave for finding Byrd's driving suspicious: he was driving with his hands placed as most people are taught to drive, at 10 and 2 on the wheel; his seat was positioned far from the steering wheel; he was driving a rental car and he spent too long in the left lane making a passing maneuver.

The second case before the court involves a Virginia man who was arrested after a police officer walked onto his driveway and pulled back a tarp covering a stolen motorcycle. Virginia's highest court found the officer's actions proper.

WESA will be surveying Pennsylvania candidates for federal and state office for the 2022 general election — tell us which issues are most important to you.