Most people in Evansville have been pulled over by police while driving, or know someone who has. Sometimes these traffic stops lead to criminal charges. In such situations, one's criminal defense strategy often depends on what happened when the police stopped the defendant in their vehicle and searched for drugs and other evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court recently expanded constitutional protections by ruling that people who borrow rental cars from a friend or family member generally have the same protections as the car's authorized driver during police searches. Prior to this ruling, police could pull over rent-a-car drivers who commit a minor traffic violation, because they could then search the car if that driver was not listed on the rental application.
The Court ruled on a traffic stop in Pennsylvania in 2014. The State Police pulled over the defendant, who was driving his fiancé's rental car, for a minor traffic offense. He told State Troopers that he had a small amount of marijuana in the car and acted nervously.
He was not authorized to drive the rent-a-car according to the rental agreement. Police told him that he did not have to consent to a car search and opened the trunk. They found body armor and about 2,500 small bags of heroin. The defendant admitted that he planned to sell the heroin for around $7,000. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that someone who legally possesses or controls the rental vehicle has a reasonable expectation of privacy, even if that person is not listed as the authorized driver. They may be driving because the authorized motorist is drowsy or impaired or for another innocent reason. Accordingly, police need a warrant or probable cause to conduct a search.
The court returned the case to a lower court, which must determine whether police had probable cause to believe that there were illegal substances in the rent-a-car. It must also consider whether the defendant lacked an expectation of privacy, because he essentially stole the vehicle by misleading the rental company by having his fiancé rent the vehicle.
This case is important to people in Indiana and nationwide who have right to privacy in their vehicles and the steps that police must undertake to conduct a search and seizure. It is important to ensure that these rights are protected during arrests and a criminal trial.