Supreme Court Explains Privacy Protection in Rental Car Search Case

Search and seizure laws offer important protections to anyone suspected of or charged with a Florida drug crime or another crime. These laws set the ground rules for when police officers can stop a person on the street, pull over a car, or enter a home without a warrant. They also set strict limits on when the cops can search a person and his or her car and home. In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the privacy expectations that are at the center of many of these protections. The justices limited police officers’ ability to search rental vehicles.

Supreme CourthouseThe defendant was driving a rental car when police officers stopped him outside Pittsburgh. The woman who had rented the vehicle gave the defendant the keys to the car, even though his name wasn’t on the rental agreement, and he wasn’t authorized to drive the vehicle. State troopers searched the car’s trunk, where they found 49 bricks of heroin and some body armor. They turned that evidence over to federal authorities, who charged the defendant with various drug crimes.

A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence should be excluded at trial because it was obtained in an unlawful search. But the Supreme Court eventually sided with the defendant.

“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,” the justices explained in a unanimous decision.

The troopers were required to have probable cause or a warrant to search the car because of those privacy interests, the court explained. Although the cops said they had probable cause because the defendant told them there was marijuana in the car, the district and appeals courts didn’t get to that question. Instead, those courts wrongly ruled that the search was valid because the defendant didn’t have any privacy interest in the rental car. As a result, the court remanded the case back to the federal judge to consider the probable cause question.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced defense lawyer. Clearwater drug crime attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.

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