Reasonable Expectation of Privacy • Reasonable Suspicion

Commonwealth v. Carrillo-Quintero, PICS Case No. 14-0153 (C.P. Lehigh Dec. 10, 2013) Ford, J. (15 pages).

Passengers, who were not authorized to drive under car rental agreement, had no expectation of privacy in the contents of the rented vehicle. As to the authorized driver, police had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. Motion to suppress denied.

Police stopped a vehicle for speeding. While questioning the four occupants, three of whom appeared nervous, police noticed an air filter on the back seat console. The car had been rented from Thrifty under a third-party agreement, whereby an absentee person arranged for the rental and authorized one of the occupants to drive it. According to police, this arrangement was commonly used by persons to conceal their identities while trafficking in illegal drugs.

Police issued a written warning for speeding, and asked one of the occupants whether he had any drugs in the vehicle. Occupant answered in the negative, but turned and looked at the rental’s trunk. The authorized driver refused consent to search the vehicle.

After a K-9 dog indicated that drugs were located in the vehicle, police arrested the four occupants, obtained a warrant, and found over six pounds of heroin located inside the vehicle.

Defendants, charged with possessory crimes, moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that police lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to detain them after a legitimate traffic stop and to subsequently search the vehicle. The commonwealth asserted that the three defendants who were not parties to the rental agreement had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle and its contents.The trial court denied the motion.

To demonstrate an expectation of privacy in a vehicle, a defendant must show that he owns the vehicle searched or that he was operating it with the permission of the owner. Here, the vehicle was owned by Thrifty and one co-defendant was authorized to drive it. The remaining three defendants were passengers only, with no privacy interest in the vehicle.

Regarding the authorized driver who had standing to seek suppression, police possessed reasonable suspicion that drugs were being transported in the vehicle: defendants were operating the vehicle with a third-party rental agreement; the car’s the air filter, meant for under the hood, was in the middle of the back seat; and the driver was unable to state his complete home address and showed signs of unusual nervousness. When the K-9 officer indicated the presence of drugs, police had probable cause to believe that defendants were transporting drugs.