The National Association for Public Defense played an important role in expanding Fourth Amendment protections in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Byrd v. United States. At issue was the Third Circuit’s holding that drivers of rental vehicles who are not listed on the rental agreement lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car.

The NAPD submitted an amicus brief, urging the Supreme Court to grant certiorari. The Amicus Committee received outstanding pro bono representation from the Washington D.C. firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as well as excellent research and drafting assistance from students from the University of Cincinnati College of Law’s NAPD Bearcat Chapter.  This initial brief decried the Third Circuit’s limitation of Fourth Amendment protections to those who can purchase contractually-documented property rights. The brief urged the Supreme Court to acknowledge the social expectation of privacy rights created through increased reliance on shared modes of transportation, especially among marginalized and underserved communities.

After the Court granted certiorari, the NAPD filed an amicus brief on the merits in conjunction with the National Association of Federal Defenders. This brief extended and deepened the organization’s prior analysis of socially generated privacy expectations in the context of shared transportation and car rental contracts.  Among other arguments, the NAPD merits brief highlighted the distinctive inability of low-income communities to exercise meaningful bargaining power over the terms of rental car agreements and other documents that function effectively as contracts of adhesion.

In a 9-0 unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded. In so doing, the Supreme Court squarely rejected the Third Circuit’s proposition that the driver of a rental vehicle not listed on the rental agreement can never enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in that car. The court held that such a per se rule would be “too restrictive” in its interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. Instead, the Court emphasized Fourth Amendment protection of privacy interests.  Drawing on its decisions in Jones v. United States and Rakas v. Illinois, the Court held that a person in lawful possession of a rental car, capable of excluding others, enjoys a reasonable expectation of privacy in that car.  This is so regardless of whether the person is listed on a rental agreement.

The Court’s unanimous decision in Byrd is a victory for the rapidly-growing population that relies on the sharing economy to access transportation, including millions of people who live in marginalized and underserved communities. The ruling is a much-needed judicial affirmation that reasonable, socially-determined expectations of privacy that are protected by the Fourth Amendment are not confined exclusively to those who can afford to purchase a contractually-defined interest in property.