Bearcat Law Briefs Contribute to Important Supreme Court Decision
In the summer of 2017, students from the University of Cincinnati College of Law set out to convince the Supreme Court to hear a case involving a critical yet contentious question regarding the Fourth Amendment: does the driver of a rental car who is not listed on the rental agreement have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that vehicle under the Fourth Amendment?
In Byrd v. United States, the Third Circuit refused to recognize the existence of a Fourth Amendment privacy expectation in drivers who are not listed on a rental car’s agreement. Assisting the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD), the University of Cincinnati’s NAPD Bearcat Chapter worked alongside prominent defense attorneys to urge the Supreme Court to hear the case. Students researched the significance of the impact such a decision would have and highlighted the importance of the case to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Drawing on the increased reliance on shared modes of transportation among low-income and marginalized communities, as well as the rise of ridesharing services, the students wove their research into an amicus brief that was filed with the Supreme Court.
Early in the fall semester, the Court announced that it would hear the case. Thrilled that the case would move forward, the students wasted no time in delving into research to assist with an amicus brief on the merits stage of the case. Drawing on subjects ranging from Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to contract law, students assisted the NAPD with the drafting of an amicus brief submitted to the Court. Urging the Court to reverse the Third Circuit, the NAPD highlighted the changing societal expectations of privacy in an era where car ownership is essential to meaningful participation in modern civic life. Many low-income communities lack access to reliable transportation, instead relying on shared and borrowed transportation. Many younger generations are forgoing car ownership in favor of car rental services such as Zipcar and car2go. The amicus brief urged the Court to give its imprimatur to rapidly changing societal expectations of privacy in an era of flexible and shared vehicle ownership.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit. Rejecting the Third Circuit’s holding that an unlisted driver in a rental car cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that vehicle, the Supreme Court found that irrespective a driver’s listing on a rental contract, if the driver is in lawful possession of the vehicle and has a right to exclude others, the driver enjoys a reasonable expectation of privacy in that vehicle.
The decision left the student with far more than a sense of excitement. “The process was just as valuable as the victory,” reflected rising third year law student David Wovrosh. Working with distinguished defense attorneys across the country, the students gained valuable insight into the strategy behind forming a winning argument.
“It was absolutely an eye-opening and humbling experience. Working alongside renowned names in the field, we were able to get an unvarnished view of how arguments are crafted and the entire strategy for building and researching a compelling brief,” Wovrosh said.
“It goes far beyond using convincing black letter law. Observing how great legal minds deliberated on the line of argumentation and anticipating just how judges would respond to the arguments was incredibly illuminating. The lessons I learned went far beyond what can be taught in a classroom. It’s something that I will carry with me throughout my career.”
The victory in Byrd comes off the heels of another victory in McWilliams v. Dunn, which saw the Supreme Court’s majority opinion cite to the NAPD amicus brief in which UC law students had participated. With another victory for the NAPD Bearcat Chapter, UC Law students continue to gain invaluable practical experience, learning from and working alongside distinguished legal experts in appellate advocacy and constitutional criminal procedures. The victory in Byrd also serves as a shining example of the meaningful contributions to the highest echelons of the legal field that UC Law students are capable of making.