High Court Takes Up Case of Rental-Car Stop

WASHINGTON (CN) – A traffic-stop case that the U.S. Supreme Court picked up on Thursday involves a man who was pulled over with heroin and body armor in the trunk of his rental car.

As explained in an underlying ruling, Pennsylvania State Police gave a flimsy excuse for pulling over Terrence Byrd on a highway near Harrisburg.

The officer claimed to have begun following Byrd because he noticed the driver’s seat was heavily reclined, and he said Byrd violated a law that prohibits drivers from using the lefthand lane of a roadway except for passing maneuvers.

Backup appeared at the stop as the officer attempted to clarify Byrd’s identity, aliases and criminal history — though there was a warrant out for Byrd in New Jersey, the Garden State had not requested that other jurisdictions arrest Byrd for extradition.

The ruling says the officers also asked Byrd for permission to search his Ford Fusion but told him that they did not ultimately need his consent because he was not listed on the car’s rental agreement. Case records indicate that Byrd’s girlfriend had executed the rental.

Claiming that Byrd did consent to the search, the officers found heroin and body armor in the trunk of the car.

Byrd challenged the legality of the Sept. 17, 2014, stop and the search after he was arrested but entered a conditional plea of guilty when that bid failed.

Throwing out Byrd’s appeal this past February, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit found that the District Court made no clear error in the Fourth Amendment analysis.

“The first officer’s observation of Byrd’s nervous avoidance of the center console coupled with Byrd’s non-photographic identification, his use of an alias, and the absence of his name on the rental agreement gave rise to additional suspicion of other criminal activity,” the ruling states. “Moreover, we have little trouble concluding that, upon discovering a valid outstanding warrant from another state, an officer may extend a stop to inquire as to whether that other state wants the driver arrested for extradition. While the duration of the stop in this case may have been long, it was not constitutionally unreasonable.”

Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Byrd petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.

In the government’s opposing brief, it calls Byrd’s case “a poor vehicle” for resolving the underlying privacy question.

“This court has repeatedly denied review in cases presenting the question whether an unauthorized driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car, and it should do the same here,” the government argued.

As evident from Thursday’s order, the justices decided otherwise. Per its custom, the court did not issue an comment on its decision to take up the case.

Byrd is represented by E. Joshua Rosenkranz with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in Manhattan, with help from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher attorney David Debold.

U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco represents the government.

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