Supreme Court spotlight: Florida, Georgia water battle; Rental car driver rights; The fate of DACA

The United States Supreme Court is on track to hear a record number of cases in its current term.

This past week, the Justices tackled a decades-old dispute at the Florida-Georgia line over water rights for the Apalachicola River and the slow demise of its valuable ecosystem. They also took up two cases about your rights when it comes to searching a vehicle: one dealing with rental cars and another dealing with vehicles on private property. The DACA showdown also took a new turn that will undoubtedly send it to the Supreme Court.

Here’s what you need to know about these cases:

RIVER BATTLE AT THE FLORIDA-GEORGIA LINE

In the case that is literally docketed as Florida v. Georgia, the Supreme Court will decide whether the state of Georgia has violated water access rights flowing from two rivers in Georgia in the Apalachicola River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

At issue is the slow destruction of a rich ecosystem in the Panhandle that has also had wide-ranging impacts on the fishing and tourism economies around Apalachicola Bay, according to the State of Florida.

The cause: The state of Georgia increasing water storage and restricting access to water from the Flint River further upstate that flows into the Apalachicola River.

It is a legal and political battle that has been going on for decades.

The Apalachicola River forms where the Chattahoochee and the Flint Rivers in Georgia merge at the Florida-Georgia border. The fight over water removal from the Chattahoochee and the Flint dates back to 1990.

In 1997, Congress formed a compact for the three-river basin that extends from Georgia into Florida to control the water removal and keep water flowing into Apalachicola Bay. That compact fell apart back in 2003 and this dispute has been back in the courts since then.

Five dams line the Chattahoochee River, that Florida officials claim are restricting more water access.

Since then, the Federal government has issued a fishery disaster for the oyster industry in the state of Florida due to the collapse of the depletion of river water that leads to Apalachicola Bay.

By the numbers cited in Florida’s lawsuit, the Apalachicola Bay ecosystem supports:

  • 142 Freshwater and estuary fish species
  • 26 species of mussels, 3 of which are under Federal protection and 4 more that are pending protected status
  • More than 1600 plant species
  • 100 Federal and State endangered species.

If the Supreme Court sides with Florida, a new plan will have to be developed to increase the flow of water from the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. Then there is the determination of what cost this has had on the Apalachicola Bay economy.

THINK TWICE ABOUT WHO IS DRIVING YOUR RENTAL CAR

Another case the Supreme Court took up last week: What happens when you rent a car and don’t list another person as an authorized driver — particularly when that driver gets pulled over – and may be involved in criminal activity?

Rental car companies typically charge an additional fee to list another authorized driver when you rent a car. This is typically done for insurance purposes if another driver is involved in a crash.

In 2014, Terrence Byrd’s girlfriend/mother of his children/close family friend, Latasha Reed, (all were listed in briefs to the Supreme Court, oral arguments and a sentencing report in Byrd’s criminal case) rented a car in New Jersey. Due to Byrd’s criminal history, he would not have been able to rent the car. Reed’s only authorization for someone else to drive the car depended on “prior written consent.”

Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver, which is part of rental car agreements.

Byrd drove the car off the lot then took off from New Jersey to Pittsburgh on his own in the rental car. Pennsylvania state troopers pulled Byrd over and issued him a citation for driving in the left lane – but it was the subsequent search of the rental car that led this case to the Supreme Court.

Because Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver, troopers searched the car and found a flak jacket with 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk.

That led to a 10-year prison sentence after Byrd pleaded guilty to drug possession and body armor charges.

Byrd’s attorneys argued that troopers violated his 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, claiming they had no probable cause and they violated his expectation of privacy by looking in the trunk.

Federal prosecutors responded on several fronts, citing the fact that Byrd was not listed on the contract as an authorized driver, therefore the troopers did not need probable cause to search the car.

This is one of several search exceptions and court decisions that allow such searches of a vehicle.

The main issues in this case: If you simply possess, have permission to use or take control of a rental vehicle – or any vehicle — is that enough to deny a search when you are not a listed driver on the rental contract?

Prosecutors, and the Justices, during arguments this week made the point that someone who steals a car after a murder and has the bloody knife sitting on the front seat could say they have the same right to demand a search warrant before a car is searched – claiming they have the same rights as the legitimate owner.

If you are renting a car, pay careful attention to the authorized driver part of the contract. Some companies will waive fees if you are a spouse or domestic partner. If you are on a road trip or anticipate someone else will be driving the car, check with the agency about fees and making sure you have everyone listed.

The Supreme Court also brought out the issue that rental car companies don’t want to be in the business of being a safe-haven for criminal activity.

THE FATE OF DACA AND THE DREAMERS – AND WHY TWEETS CAN BECOME EVIDENCE IN COURT

While not on the docket at the Supreme Court this week, a California Federal District Court judge issued a ruling that will prevent the end of DACA protections for children of illegal immigrants that was set to go into effect on March 5.

It also paved the path for the so-called Dreamers to head straight to the Supreme Court.

A complicated legal battle over DACA has been set up in California since President Donald Trump’s administration, including acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Elaine Duke and the Department of Justice (DOJ,) announced the end of DACA in October.

Five separate cases have been filed, including one by the University of California and it’s President Janet Napolitano – the former DHS Secretary who helped implement DACA under former President Barack Obama in 2012.

Judge William Alsup issued a temporary injunction to block the end of DACA protections last Tuesday on one very limited basis: Equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

But it was the President’s own comments, tweets, statements and those of his administration — and his campaign – that were used against him.

Judge Alsup rejected several Constitutional claims by the University of California and Napolitano that would allow DACA recipients to stay in the United States and receive federal protection.

When it came to the equal protection argument though – simply put that DACA recipients deserve equal protection under the law when it comes to their legal status in the United States — there was one central focus: Was racial discrimination a factor – not the sole purpose – for the decision to rescind DACA?

The president’s comments from the campaign trail and since he took office are cited in this order as the reason for blocking the end of DACA for now.

You can read the full injunction here.

More court challenges will come and one of the key things to watch in the DACA debate — much like the travel ban debate or any debate that involves free speech, the freedom of the press and the 1st Amendment — will turn to the admissibility of one simple thing: Words.

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