Driving a rental car? Police need probable cause to search you

When you're driving in your own car, the police can't just pull you over for no reason -- they need reasonable suspicion that you've committed an offense. Once they've stopped you, they need probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed before they can perform a full search of your vehicle. This is because the Fourth Amendment prohibits government agents from performing unreasonable searches and seizures.

The same principle applies if you're driving a rental car, although that wasn't obvious to a Pennsylvania state trooper who pulled a man over in 2014. In that case, the driver wasn't listed on the rental agreement, so the trooper decided he had waived his Fourth Amendment rights.

The trooper, who had been on speed trap duty, pulled the man over because he thought the driver's seat was reclined too far. When he realized the driver wasn't listed on the rental agreement, the trooper performed a full search of the vehicle. In the trunk, he found heroin.

The car wasn't stolen; it had been rented by a friend on the driver's behalf and he seemed to be authorized to drive it. The trooper therefore did not have probable cause to believe a crime was occurring. That would seem to make a full search of the vehicle objectively unreasonable.

The heroin was nevertheless allowed into evidence and the defendant was convicted. The case was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court has just ruled -- unanimously -- that the mere fact that the driver wasn't listed on the rental agreement had no effect on his Fourth Amendment rights.

"The court now holds that, as a general rule, someone in otherwise lawful possession and control of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement does not list him or her as an authorized driver," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the court.

The Supreme Court has sent the case back to the trial court, however, to determine whether the driver and his friend rented the car fraudulently. If they did, the driver may have essentially waived his Fourth Amendment rights after all.

That said, merely violating the rental agreement by allowing someone else to drive is not necessarily fraud. The court found there were plenty of innocent reasons a driver might not be listed on a rental agreement.

If you've rented a car, your Fourth Amendment rights are intact. According to the Supreme Court, you retain your rights even if you allow someone else to drive, as long as you didn't do it fraudulently.

If you've been arrested as a tourist, you should protect your rights by hiring an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

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Patrick T. McNally, Attorney at Law
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