As previously reported, the Supreme Court on November 29 heard arguments in Carpenter v. United States, an important privacy case about the Fourth Amendment’s application to 127 days’ worth of a criminal suspect’s cell-site location information. While the Court has yet to decide the case, its decisions last week in Byrd v. United States and earlier this Term in District of Columbia v. Wesby (argued by one of this post’s authors) hint of trouble ahead for the government.

Byrd and Wesby: A practical rather than technical reading of the Fourth Amendment

While the facts were quite different in Byrd and Wesby, the decisions share a common theme. In both, the Supreme Court rejected analytical shortcuts that did not reflect the real world.

Byrd involved a police search of a rental car trunk yielding contraband, including forty-nine bricks of heroin. The lower courts accepted the government’s argument that the driver could not object to the search under the Fourth Amendment because “drivers who are not listed on rental agreements always lack an expectation of privacy in the automobile based on the rental company’s lack of authorization alone.” The Supreme Court decisively rejected this “per se rule.” It noted how there are “countless innocuous reasons why an unauthorized driver might get behind the wheel of a rental car and drive it” and how “car-rental agreements are filled with long lists of restrictions.” A breach of an agreement would not automatically mean the driver lacked even the reasonable expectation of privacy necessary to claim Fourth Amendment protection. (The same might be argued of email providers’ fine-print-laden Terms of Service, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Orin Kerr have noted.) But the Court also rejected the competing argument that the sole occupant of a rental car “always” has an expectation of privacy, and so it remanded for a ruling based on the precise facts rather than categorical rules.
Continue Reading Supreme Court drops hints about upcoming privacy decision in Carpenter