Am I liable for things police find rental cars?
October 14, 2014 10:33 PM   Subscribe

Let's say I was driving a rental car and getting pulled over. Let's say the police found something that wasn't supposed to be there. Rental cars are being driven by lots of people. Would I be held liable? Is it my responsibility to i.e. search below rear seats to make sure nothing was left?

To be clear: this is hypothetical and asked purely out of curiosity and because google has confused me. I was watching an old "Streets of San Francisco" episode (Season 3, Episode 15) where a drug dealer got off because "23 people drove the rental car within the last few weeks." Now this series is old and I wonder if nowadays it's my responsibility to i.e. check that the person driving before me didn't leave anything in the car? I'm pretty good about checking tire thread, oil and paint damages but that is something I haven't checked before.
posted by krautland to Law & Government (16 answers total)
imho, it is not your responsibility to search below the rear seats of a car you just rented. beyond that, your question is unanswerable as it depends on an expanding universe of specific and peculiar facts. a related question would be, is the rental company liable for renting you a car with a baggie of coke under the seat?
posted by bruce at 10:55 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a potential member of a jury of your peers, I would reasonably doubt the idea that a working joe at a rental car agency wouldn't find the coke while cleaning, or that the person who initially put it under the seat would forget it.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:03 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

As someone who rents cars regularly I can tell you that they sometimes have not been cleaned well or at all before I pick it up. So something left stuffed under a seat is absolutely a possibility, albeit a rare one. I don't know how you'd argue that besides just your word, but if I was on your jury and the rest of the story was plausible I wouldn't let that detail hold me up.
posted by shelleycat at 11:24 PM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ha! As someone who rents a lot of cars often (via Enterprise locations all over Los Angeles) I know the cars are not well cleaned and/or not cleaned at all or thoroughly (only on the outside and visible interior) between rentals.

That said, Bruce has your answer.

Considering the demographic of my city, I'm sure I've rented cars that had unseen coke vials that rolled under and went unnoticed after someone else's night of heavy partying.

Don't cab driver's in NYC find crazy stuff all the time??

Again, ultimately, I think Bruce has your answer if you are looking for a viable legal defense.
posted by jbenben at 11:25 PM on October 14, 2014

As a potential member of a jury of his peers, I would reasonably doubt that every rental agency cleans every car thoroughly between users, especially at a busy agency.

I used to rent cars a lot, and the employees were almost universally much more concerned about the outside of the car than the inside. As long as there was no obvious garbage or mess on the inside, I think it got pretty cursory treatment.

Even if I thought the coke was his, though, I'd vote not guilty. Fuck the War on Some Drugs.
posted by jingzuo at 11:27 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is typical fare for a law-school exam hypothetical. Except that hypothetical would include a lot more facts—like, the current driver vacuumed the car this morning; or he just picked it up and is driving away from the rental company; or the contraband is metal and making clinky noises—and the students' task on the exam would be to marshal all these various facts in one direction or the other. The reason law school exams don't have wide-open hypotheticals like you've presented is that, as legal questions, they are unanswerable beyond simply saying, "Well, it depends. What are some additional facts?"

Generally speaking I'd say, in good humor, what you already know: that adopting procedural plotlines as worries is unwise, and anyway if you were going to do that, there are more horrible and plausible plotlines to choose.
posted by cribcage at 11:32 PM on October 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

How liable to need to be before it is a problem?

Are you liable to be arrested if a cop finds a bag of coke? Yes.
Are you liable to spend a weekend in jail, be hauled before a judge, and forced to pay bail? Yes.
Are you liable to be convicted by a jury and spend time in prison? Depends on your lawyer
posted by Flood at 4:27 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Flood: "How liable to need to be before it is a problem?"

This exactly. If a cop finds drugs in your rental car, you are going to have a Legal Headache. Will you be convicted? Maybe not, but there are all sorts of ways in which your life could be made severely difficult just by being arrested. I know that now that you have asked this question, I'll be looking under the seats of my next rental.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:20 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a former rental car employee I can tell you it's highly unlikely that you will find a bag of pot or whatever in the car. That kind of stuff gets left behind surprisingly often. Often enough that the kids cleaning the cars look for it. However it rarely gets reported to management ;) But if it happened, you would be in possession of a an illegal substance, and would probably need an expensive lawyer to have a chance to get out of taking the fall.
posted by COD at 5:26 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Of course, this assumes an officer has probable cause to search without a warrant. If the offending substance is in plain site, the officer can search the car for more, but then, you would have seen it too.

There's the whole being-detained-while-waiting-for-dogs and/or a warrant aspect, as well, which is a different question.

Side note: My default position to "Do you mind if I look in the trunk?" is always "Not without a warrant." I have NEVER been asked that in any of my (few) traffic stops. Years ago I bought a retired police car from the city auction and drove it for several years. I was pulled over for a broken taillight in it once. The officer didn't ask to look in the car, as usual.

But when I listed the car for sale, I was cleaning out the trunk and apparently was doing a better job than the police department, because I found a small amount of marijuana, a crack pipe, and small amount of white power in baggies under the trunk carpet. I just about panicked at the idea that those things could have been found in my possession. And what would my defense have been? "Hey, this is YOUR stuff! You left it there!" I'm glad I didn't have to find out.
posted by The Deej at 6:00 AM on October 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

I was working for a car service and cops pulled me for having a headlight out. Someone left a bag of heroin on the backseat of the minivan. The 3 of us went through the car together. A thorough search turned up a dildo. They didn't charge me.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 8:05 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

@COD - I just had to log in to tell you this story. It may be rare to find pot in your rental car, but it DOES happen.

My friend and I flew from California to DC in order to take part in President Obama's first inauguration. We stayed with relatives in Virginia and rented a car from a "Rent a Wreck" type place because it was so cheap. That way we could easily get the 15 miles each way back and forth from the Metro Station each day. After using the car all week, we went to clean it out before returning it, and you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found a solid 8th of Weed in the glove compartment! We'd never once opened it all week. I shudder to think what would have happened had we been pulled over and searched.

I've never been a fan of weed, but my friend couldn't let it go to waste and ended up smuggling it home with us on the plane.
posted by crayon at 11:09 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read this article earlier this summer about people leaving pot in their cars at Denver International Airport (or giving it to rental car employees), so I have to think this is a pretty common thing -- at least in Colorado/Washington!
posted by jabes at 12:54 PM on October 15, 2014

I think you could have a reasonable argument of doubt should it go to a jury--we couldn't convict a guy with a hidden gun in his car because (a) it was used and (b) he let a steady stream of his friends in and out it and also let them borrow it. We couldn't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he put the gun in the car and thus couldn't convict, even though everyone pretty much assumed he did.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:53 PM on October 15, 2014

Anecdata: definitely pulled down the sun visor of a rental in LA and had a full Rx bottle of weed fall out into my lap. It's never been my thing, but my buddy was stoked about it.
posted by a halcyon day at 10:08 PM on October 15, 2014

there are some really interesting answers in this thread (yay!) but I understand that I was a bit over the place, so let's be more specific. a clearer version of my question could be is it my duty to check i.e. for weed in all cubbies, between or under seats, when renting a car?

let's say I was getting pulled over and there was something in my car. I think I would be having a pretty good defense given that I wouldn't have fingerprints or dna on said stuff or anything related in my system (I know, I am boring but I don't smoke). would the cops/district attorneys still insist that it was my duty to have investigated the car? am I being negligent?
posted by krautland at 12:19 AM on October 16, 2014

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