On July 25, 2022, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Daniels[i], which serves as instructive regarding when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental vehicle. The relevant facts of Daniels are as follows:
Derrick Daniels had multiple outstanding arrest warrants, and police were actively searching for him. So they obtained search warrants to track him using his cell-phone location data. After using that data to find him, officers saw Daniels driving a gray Dodge Charger with a Florida license tag. Running the license plate on the vehicle revealed that the Charger was an Enterprise rental car.
The next morning, officers tracked Daniels to a Baymont Inn & Suites and found the Charger parked out front. The desk clerk directed the officers to Daniels’ hotel room, where they arrested Daniels based on the outstanding arrest warrants.
As Daniels walked out of the hotel, he passed the Charger. An officer asked Daniels if he knew anything about the vehicle without having provided a Miranda warning. Daniels responded that “he didn’t know anything about a Dodge Charger.” J.A. 142.
Knowing the Charger was a rental vehicle, an officer called Enterprise about the car. The officer spoke with an Enterprise risk manager. The risk manager testified that the officer told her “they were making an arrest of the person who had [Enterprise’s] vehicle and asked what [she] would like to do with the vehicle.” J.A. 217. Upon checking the rental agreement, the risk manager discovered that Daniels did not rent the car and was not listed as an authorized driver. Instead, the authorized renter was Erica Baldwin. Under the rental agreement, Enterprise had the right to seize the car without notice to the renter whenever it discovered that an unauthorized person drove the vehicle. So the risk manager sent a tow truck to return the vehicle to Enterprise’s service center.
Officers followed the tow truck to Enterprise to be present if an Enterprise employee discovered contraband. At the service center, Enterprise’s employees consented to a search of the vehicle. After a handgun was discovered under the driver’s side floor mat, a team of crime-scene specialists arrived to collect the firearm, and DNA analysis on the gun revealed Daniels’ DNA.[ii]
Daniels was arrested and subsequently indicted under federal law for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He filed a motion to suppress and argued that the search of the rental car violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion to suppress on three grounds. First, district court held that Daniels abandoned any reasonable expectation of privacy in the car when he denied knowledge and possession of the car. Second, the district court held that the Enterprise employees had given the police valid third-party consent to search the vehicle. Third, the district court held that the police would have inevitably discovered the gun in the vehicle. Daniels entered a guilty plea with the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. He then filed an appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first set out to determine whether Daniels had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car such that he had “standing” to contest the search. The court then noted the relevant legal principles to the issue of whether Daniels possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle and stated
To challenge the legality of a search under the Fourth Amendment, a criminal defendant must prove that he has a “legitimate expectation of privacy” in the item or area searched. Rawlings v. Kentucky, 448 U.S. 98, 104, 100 S. Ct. 2556, 65 L. Ed. 2d 633 (1980). “A person who is aggrieved by an illegal search . . . of a third person’s premises or property has not had any of his Fourth Amendment rights infringed.” Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 134, 99 S. Ct. 421, 58 L. Ed. 2d 387 (1978).
To determine whether a legitimate expectation of privacy exists, we look to “concepts of real or personal property law or to understandings that are recognized and permitted by society.” Byrd v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1518, 1527, 200 L. Ed. 2d 805 (2018) (quoting Rakas, 439 U.S. at 144 n.12) (noting that the inquiry is not amenable to “a single metric or exhaustive list of considerations”). Applying those principles, the Supreme Court has recognized that a driver in “lawful possession” of a rental car may have such a legitimate expectation of privacy, even if the rental agreement does not authorize that driver to drive the car. Id. at 1531.[iii]
Thus, since Daniels was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement, the burden was on him to show that he was in “lawful possession” of the car in order to have reasonable expectation of privacy of privacy in the car. The court of appeals noted that, in Byrd v. United States,[iv] the Supreme Court rejected a per-se rule that driver’s not listed on the rental agreement have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental vehicle. Rather, under Byrd, the Court held that
The court of appeals then stated that Daniels presented no evidence at the suppression hearing that showed he was in lawful possession of the rental car, noting that he did not testify that he was given permission by Baldwin (the person that rented the car) nor did Baldwin testify that she allowed Daniels to use the car. Therefore, the court of appeals held
Because Daniels did not put forward any evidence that would support his claim that Baldwin let him use the car—or that he “lawfully” possessed the rental car by other means—he fails to carry his burden that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the rental car. Thus, his challenge of the search that led to the discovery of the gun must fail.[vi]
Thus, the court affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
It is important to note that, even if Daniels had presented evidence that he was lawfully in possession of the rental vehicle, it is likely that the search would still have been permissible under the Fourth Amendment for the reasons determined by the district court.
First, Daniels abandoned his interest, and reasonable expectation of privacy in the car when he stated that “he didn’t know anything about the Charger” when asked by the police.
Second, since the vehicle was in the possession of Daniels, who was not authorized on the rental agreement to be in possession of the car, and Daniels was under arrest, the rental company was authorized under their rental agreement to regain possession of the car. They had the car towed to their facility. As such, they were in lawful possession of the vehicle and could give the police valid consent to search the vehicle.
Third, the gun would have inevitably been discovered by the police, even if they did not conduct the search, because if an Enterprise employee searched the car and located the gun, the employee would have turned it over to the police, as found property, as they stood by.
Additionally, if Enterprise had requested the police impound the vehicle, the officers would have been authorized to conduct an inventory of the vehicle pursuant to department policy.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 19-4812 (4th Cir. Decided July 25, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 4-5 (emphasis added)
[iv] 138 S. Ct. 1518, 1526-27 (2018)
[v] Daniels at 6 (emphasis added)