Police Tow Lot

Is the Driver Unauthorized AND Unlawful? It Could Matter

In May 2018, SCOTUS issued its opinion in Byrd v United States and settled a conflict among the various circuit courts.  Prior to Byrd, six circuits had ruled that an unauthorized driver on a rental agreement did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle or its contents.  Four circuits had ruled that an authorized driver did have a reasonable expectation in the vehicle and its contents as it relates to a police officer’s search of the vehicle.  As we reported before on the Byrd case, SCOTUS determined that the mere fact that the operator is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement does not defeat the operator’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

Fast forward to today, and we will be looking at a case out of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals that deals with this issue in the aftermath of the Byrd decision. In United States v Lyle1, a jury found the defendant guilty of a number of criminal charges including possession of methamphetamine after officers searched a rental vehicle that had been rented by Lyle’s girlfriend.  Lyle appealed his conviction, the 2nd Circuit affirmed the conviction, and Lyle appealed to the US Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court vacated the 2nd Circuit’s ruling and at the time SCOTUS issued its opinion in Byrd and remanded the case back to the 2nd Circuit for further deliberation. 

FACTS

A long- term investigation confirmed that the defendants – James Lyle and Michael Van Praagh were involved in a methamphetamine distribution network in New York and New Jersey.  Officers observed Lyle park his car in downtown Manhattan and also saw that he was carrying a gravity knife which was illegal to carry in New York.  Officers approached Lyle as he was closing the trunk and asked him about the knife and why he was driving the car.  Lyle first denied driving the car but later admitted that he had.  Officers learned that Lyle’s driver’s license was suspended and he was not listed as an authorized driver on the vehicle that had been rented by his girlfriend.  Lyle was then arrested for carrying the illegal knife and driving under suspension.  Lyle’s request to have the car left at the scene was denied and officers towed the vehicle to the police tow lot.  An inventory search discovered over a pound of methamphetamine and cash.  Lyle was later indicted, found guilty, and sentenced to the statutory minimum of ten years in prison.  The defendants appealed their conviction and the 2nd Circuit affirmed the conviction.  The defendants then appealed to the Supreme Court and SCOTUS reversed the conviction based on its decision in Byrd v United States.  Our discussion now focuses on the 2nd Circuit’s review of the legal issues here after the Byrd case.

Second Circuit Findings

The appellate court first tackled the question as to whether Lyle possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle in light of the Byrd decision.  The court noted that this was not a simple case of Lyle not being listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement.  Rather, Lyle was both an unauthorized AND unlawful driver based on his suspended license.  As the court stated:

 “While the absence of a valid license alone may not destroy an unauthorized driver’s expectation of privacy, Lyleʹs possession and control of the car was unlawful the moment he started driving it. Just as a car thief would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen car, an unauthorized, unlicensed driver in sole possession of a rental car does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle. Therefore, because Lyleʹs operation of the car rendered his possession and control unlawful, Byrd is distinguishable.”

As the court observed, the rental company would never had agreed to rent the vehicle to a person with a suspended license.

Next, the court looked at the officers’ decision to impound the vehicle.  The court determined that even if Lyle had a legitimate privacy interest in the vehicle and its contents, it was not unreasonable for the officers to impound the car under their community caretaker responsibilities.  Even if the officers did not expect Lyle to be in custody for long, Lyle would not have been able to operate the vehicle because of his suspended license. The court noted that “by impounding the vehicle, the officer ensured that the rental vehicle was not left on a public street in a busy midtown Manhattan location where it could have become a nuisance or been stolen or damaged and could have become illegally parked the next day”.  

The court then re-affirmed the trial court’s judgment and sentence in the case.

WRAP UP

In light of the Byrd decision, the 2nd Circuit provides us with alternatives to search the vehicle.  First and foremost, does the operator have a valid operator’s license?  It is not unusual for those involved in drug transactions to have vehicles rented by other people because their own license has been suspended.

Additionally, the following factors serve as a guide to support impoundment of the vehicle under your community caretaker authorization:

  • There was no one available to drive the car from the scene and officers were not required to wait for Lyle’s girlfriend to come and claim the vehicle;
  • It was reasonable for the officers to secure the vehicle since it was a rental vehicle and did not belong to the operator; and
  • Even if Lyle was to be detained at the station for a short time, his license status prohibited him from recovering the vehicle.

One final point – whether you use the DLG Motor Vehicle Inventory policy or you have created your own policy on this issue, it is important to remember that the purpose of the inventory is to protect the agency and the owner from later claims of lost or stolen property NOT to find or secure evidence or contraband.

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1United States v Lyle,  2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 9457 (2d Cir. N.Y. April 1, 2019)