Supreme Court Accepts Two Car Search Cases

At the Supreme Court’s “long conference,” where it decides which petitions—that have been piling up all summer—to accept, the Court agreed to hear two unrelated cases involving car searches.

Per the Fourth Amendment police officers generally need a warrant to search a car. However, per the automobile exception officers may search a car that is “readily mobile” without a warrant if officers have probable cause to believe they will find contraband or a crime has been committed.

Collins v. Virginia raises the question of whether the automobile exception applies to a car that is parked on private property.

The police officer who took the tarp off of the motorcycle parked in Collins’ driveway, checked its VIN number, and recovered it upon confirming it was stolen had reason to believe that the motorcycle was stolen. The officer had a dash camera photo of a license plate of a stretched out motorcycle involved in a high speed chase. The person the license plate was last registered to told the officer he sold the motorcycle to Collins with the caveat it lacked a title and was stolen. 

Collins argued the automobile exception should not apply if a vehicle is not immediately mobile and is located on private property. The Virginia Supreme Court disagreed.

Regarding the car not being immediately mobile the court stated “[t]he mere fact that the stolen motorcycle was ‘clearly operational and therefore readily movable’ governs our decision.” Regarding the car being parked on private property the Virginia Supreme Court noted that the United States Supreme Court “has never limited the automobile exception such that it would not apply to vehicles parked on private property.” Likewise, the Virginia Supreme Court has held there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a vehicle parked on private property but exposed to public view.

In Byrd v. United States police officers lacked both a warrant and probable cause to search the car Byrd was driving as part of a traffic stop. Byrd challenged the constitutionality of the search but his name wasn’t on the rental agreement. To bring a Fourth Amendment claim a defendant “must demonstrate that he personally has an expectation of privacy in the place searched, and that his expectation is reasonable.”

The question in Byrd is whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when he has the renter's permission to drive the car but is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement. The Third Circuit in Byrd noted that in 2011 it held that no expectation of privacy exists for those not on a rental agreement. Byrd’s certiorari petition points out that lower courts are divided on the question in this case.

More specifically, the Eighth and Ninth Circuits and four state high courts have held that a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car if he or she has the renter’s permission to drive the car. The Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits and two state high courts hold that an unlisted driver does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car. The Sixth Circuit applies a totality of the circumstances test to determine whether an unlisted driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car.

So far this term the Supreme Court has agreed to decide four cases involving the Fourth Amendment (three involving searches one involving false arrest).