SCOTUS to provide guidance on privacy rights in vehicles

The right to be free against an unreasonable search is one of the fundamental rights of our country. This right applies to many different situations, often including the right to privacy within a vehicle. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has agreed to hear two cases that will provide some guidance on the extent of these protections.

Case #1: Privacy rights and rented vehicles

This case questions whether a person has a right to privacy in a rental vehicle when not listed as a driver in the rental agreement.

The case begins with a car rental transaction in New Jersey. A woman rented a vehicle and did not list any additional drivers. After leaving with the car, she allowed the father of her children to borrow the vehicle. The man then began a trip from New Jersey to Pittsburgh. While on this trip, the driver was the subject of a traffic stop in Pennsylvania. Upon realization that the driver was not on the rental agreement the trooper that conducted the stop began a search of the vehicle without the driver's consent. The driver argues that any evidence found during this search should not be admissible in court as it was the result of an illegal search. The government counters that the search was legal. This argument centers on the fact that the driver was not listed on the rental agreement. The government argues that the unlisted driver should not have privacy rights that extend to include the vehicle. As such, they contend the search was legal.

One of the more interesting questions that stems from the main issue of this case is whether or not a ruling in favor of the government would reduce the protections offered to a driver in the event the driver violated the terms of the rental agreement. If so, would even a minor violation render the protections void?

Case #2: Privacy rights and vehicles parked in a driveway

The second case questions whether or not protections extend to vehicles parked in the driveway of a private residence. In this case, a police officer went to the home, walked up the driveway, approached a motorcycle and lifted the cover to check the license plate.

Courts have long recognized that the expectation for privacy extends beyond the home to an area referred to as "curtilage," such as a garage. This case questions whether or not a vehicle in the driveway would warrant the same protections. It is argued that the government should have gotten a warrant to conduct the search that was executed when the officer entered the driveway and lifted the cover from the motorcycle.

Impact of these cases

Both cases will provide guidance on the ability of police to search vehicles. They also provide a reminder of the importance of legal counsel when charged with a crime. These cases are often complex and a defensive strategy can hinge on the definition of a single legal term, like "curtilage." As such, it is wise to contact an attorney to better ensure a legal strategy is crafted to better ensure your legal rights are protected.