U.S. Supreme Court Redefines Automobile Searches

May has been good to criminals who drive, at least as far as the U.S. Supreme Court is concerned. Two recent cases, each decided in favor of the defendant, have redefined how police will conduct automobile searches.

For decades, police have relied on a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings to forego obtaining a search warrant when searching a vehicle they believe may contain contraband. The combined rules resulted in what was referred to as the Automobile Exception and in its most basic form stated officers were permitted to search vehicles, when probable cause existed indicating contraband was hidden within, without obtaining a warrant. The reasoning was that because automobiles were so easily moved the potential evidence could be removed or destroyed before a warrant could be secured. But that exception is no longer as far-reaching as it once was.

(BYRD V. United States Robert M. Loeb for petitioner)

BYRD V. United States

The first case involved Terrence Byrd, a rental car registered under his fiancé, and an alert Trooper. The Trooper stopped Byrd after observing him driving “suspiciously” and for too long in the passing lane. From the Trooper’s viewpoint, this was an obvious drug mule driving overly cautious to avoid police interaction. The fact that he was driving a rental car only heightened the Trooper’s suspicion as it is a common method of smuggling.

Once stopped Byrd admitted to having a small amount of marijuana, but the Trooper did not believe that was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and decided to search the car. Unfortunately for Byrd, his consent was not required as he was not an authorized driver on the rental agreement and therefore had no standing to object to a search of the vehicle. Of course, the Trooper’s search uncovered additional contraband in the vehicle’s trunk- illegal body armor and heroin.

Byrd’s lawyer saw things differently, arguing that a rental agreement could not trump the Constitution and that the renter let him drive. How was he to know his expectation of privacy was any less than normal? The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.


In the second and most recent case, Ryan Collins, who had already eluded police during a high-speed chase, was finally arrested after the stolen motorcycle was found in his girlfriend’s driveway. On its face, it appears to be a classic case of good police work. Officers had obtained images of the bike and its license plate, which were then linked to Collins through his social media accounts. Officers went to his girlfriend’s house, saw a motorcycle under a tarp in the driveway, and, relying on the Automobile Exception, removed the tarp and confirmed it was the same motorcycle.

But no matter how well accepted the Automobile Exception may be, there is one other tenet of privacy that is even stronger- the protection offered by curtilage, or the area surrounding one’s home. Collins’ attorney argued, and the Court once again agreed, that the second protection outweighed the first exception. Had the motorcycle been a few feet away at the curb no problem; but parked in the secure area of one’s most sacred of places, the home, it was off-limits.


Don’t be too hard on the officers involved in either of these cases. They were relying on what they, and most of law enforcement, understood the law to be. But laws and their interpretation change and this time it was in favor of the criminals. Despite the fact that two obvious bad-doers may have gotten a second chance, protecting the Constitution is more important in the long run than getting any one smuggler or motorcycle thief off the streets. Live, learn, and adapt.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.


Tom Burrell

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell

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