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Fourth Amendment Alive and Kicking for Drivers in Criminal Cases

Posted by Steven H. Fagan | Jun 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

On May 14th, 2018, the United States Supreme Court decided an important criminal case impacting Search and Seizure and the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. The Court actually tightened constitutional protections from police discretion to search vehicles in certain situations, and this has an impact around the country, including Illinois criminal cases.

Does the Fourth Amendment Protect a Driver?

The 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution recognizes a “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Generally, any search or seizure triggers some kind of implication of the 4th Amendment. Sometimes the Fourth amendment does not apply – for example, a trespasser does not have a right to assert protection from police searching the property upon which he is trespassing. Far more often, the right exists but may be overcome by the circumstances of the search (the existence of facts that establish Probable Cause for example) that make the search no longer “unreasonable.” However, recent developments in case law have created some confusion about certain situations where 4th Amendment rights may not apply at all, such as an unauthorized driver of a rental car. In this decision, the Supreme Court has clarified some of that confusion, and provided a few guidelines that should be useful in other cases as well.

What Criminal Offense Happened Here?

Terrence Byrd's girlfriend rented a car from a Budget facility in Wayne, New Jersey. She did not include Byrd in the contract as an authorized driver. She then gave Byrd the keys to the car and drove away in her own car, and Byrd drove the car back to his home in New Jersey. Byrd loaded his belongings in the trunk, and drove away towards Pittsburgh, PA. About halfway there, police stopped Byrd for a minor traffic infraction. Seeing that his name was not on the rental agreement, the police officers asserted that Byrd had no right to deny a police search of the vehicle, including the locked trunk. Their warrantless search revealed a laundry bag containing body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.

What Was the Government After?

The really interesting thing here is that the State made no substantial argument in the appeal claiming they had Probable Cause. This may have been a strategy intended to bring about a new, bright-line rule that could have potentially made any driver without paperwork connecting him or her to the vehicle subject to warrantless searches at the whim of the police. The government wanted an end run around the Fourth amendment in this situation. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the State's reasoning and sent the case back down for a new hearing regarding whether Probable Cause existed to justify the search.

What Legal Protection Does the Motorist Have? 

The Court noted that Byrd's mere lawful presence in the car would not have been enough to justify 4th Amendment protection. Similarly, an invited guest at someone's home does not generally have a 4th Amendment protection against a search of their host's home. However, the Court recognized that a sole occupant of a vehicle (at least one whose presence in the vehicle is not unlawful) has a valid “right to exclude others” who do not have superior rights to the car. This “right to exclude” is derived from concepts of property rights that trace back through hundreds of years. These rights would not be available to a car thief, but any lawfully present sole occupant of a car would naturally have the right to exclude others (aside from the owners of the car or the rightful renter) such as a would-be carjacker or a hitchhiker – or, the Court reasons, the government (in the form of unreasonable police searches).

What Happens Now in the Criminal Trial Court?

The trial Court will have to begin a new trial to explore the facts. The government will have to demonstrate whether the police had probable cause sufficient to justify the search. However, the erosion of rights that led some state and U.S. District Courts to lean towards requiring that a person must have paperwork connecting them to a vehicle in order to claim a 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches of that vehicle seems to have been derailed soundly by this decision. 

Contact the law firm of Fagan, Fagan & Davis now for a free consultation if you or a loved one face criminal charges in Illinois. 

-this post was prepared with assistance of Northern Illinois Law School Student Avi Fagan 

About the Author

Steven H. Fagan

Steve Fagan graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign with a degree in political science. He earned his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law. Before being admitted to the bar, Steve prosecuted for the village of Arlington Heights, Illinois under a special certificate fr...

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