The 4th Amendment: Justices find privacy rights

A heroin-toting, unauthorized rental car driver and the owner of a stolen motorcycle that twice eluded police got some love from the Supreme Court Tuesday. In two cases testing the reach of the Fourth Amendment's privacy protection, a majority of justices appeared to side with the suspects over the government when their constitutional rights were threatened.

They were more united when it came to Terrence Byrd, who was stopped by police in Pennsylvania while driving a car rented by his fiancée. A search of the trunk produced 49 bricks of heroin and body armor — but without a warrant.

Justice Department officials argued successfully in lower courts that because Byrd was not authorized to drive the car, he lacked any expectation of privacy. That didn't sit well with most of the justices.

"Even if you don't have an expectation of privacy in the trunk, you've claimed an expectation of privacy in the property," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. "And absent probable cause, there's no right to search. So why are we here?"
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Justice Neil Gorsuch, picking up on his predecessor Antonin Scalia's penchant for privacy rights, said Byrd would have been able to throw out a carjacker or a hitchhiker, "so why not the government?" Ryan Collins' complaint was a closer call during the second oral argument. He was arrested for possessing a stolen motorcycle that had outrun Virginia police twice in 2013 — but an officer had to walk up the driveway of the house where Collins was staying to confirm the match.

The high court ruled that same year that police need a warrant to search outside a private home. But automobiles are exempt if a crime is suspected. In Collins' case, the two precedents collided, dividing the justices almost evenly. "There are some areas which are just as sacrosanct as your living room," Justice Elena Kagan told Virginia's acting solicitor general, Trevor Cox, referring to the court's 2013 ruling. "In that case, I think you lose here."

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