Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: When Police Search a Home With Only a Guest’s Consent

Consent is a police officer’s best friend. Don’t have a warrant to search a home? No worries. Just convince an occupant to let you in. Considering the clout of the uniform, or the badge and gun, that rarely proves too tough.

Who’s There?

Officers have to make some effort to determine whether the person letting them in to search a residence has the authority to do so. But they need not determine with absolute certainty who does and doesn’t have authority. Instead, if they reasonably believe that the person who has given consent had the right to grant it, then the resulting search is presumptively valid. 

Of course, officers must confine the search to those areas of the abode that the consent giver appears to use and have access to. That someone answers the door when the police ring doesn’t lead to a reasonable assumption that the greeter has access to and control over the entire premises.

Some Guest You Are

In a recent opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered what happens when a houseguest admits officers into the home while the residents are present. (United States v. Arreguin, 12-50484 (9th Cir. 2013).) There, Drug Enforcement Administration agents rang a doorbell at 11:00 a.m. and were welcomed by a sleepy man opening the door. As they spoke with him, they observed inside a woman with an infant and a man walking with a shoebox in hand, then without it.

The agents told the man who had answered the door that they knew of previous drug activity in the house and asked for permission to enter. The man acquiesced. Neither the woman nor the man with the shoebox—the eventual defendant—voiced any objection. The agents would later discover that the man who opened the door was merely visiting and that the other two people lived in the house permanently.

The agents proceeded to search the house, including the master bedroom, the master bathroom, and the garage (which they happened to enter by opening a door in the master bedroom). They found methamphetamine and cash. 

Confronted with the agents’ discovery, the man who had held the shoebox signed a consent-to-search form, gave incriminating statements, and revealed more methamphetamine to the officers.

Let’s Be Reasonable

The Ninth Circuit determined that it was objectively unreasonable for the officers to believe that the man who opened the door had standing to consent to a search of the bedroom, bathroom, and garage. It held that the man’s answering the door wasn’t, “in and of itself, adequate to justify a reasonable belief that he had authority to consent to a search of the master suite.” For all the officers knew, this man could have been—and actually was—someone visiting who simply happened to open the door. The court held that the actual residents’ silence did nothing to indicate that the guest had the status to consent.

The court didn’t decide whether the officers could have reasonably believed that the man who answered the door had authority to allow them into the home in the first place. Rather, it ruled that the officers’ search of the bedroom, bathroom, and garage was illegal, leaving it to the trial court to determine whether the defendant’s later statements and the additional methamphetamine he turned over were inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” (Because the statements and the extra methamphetamine seem to have been a direct product of the drugs the officers found pursuant to the illegal search, the court should suppress them.)

Rethinking Ignorance

The question of whether police officers are justified in conducting a search obviously depends on the facts, but it also hinges on the reviewing court. It’s possible that a court other than the Ninth Circuit, which has a reputation as an outlier, would have ruled otherwise. 

But at a minimum, this recent case reinforces the sanctity of the home. It reminds law enforcement agents that they can’t barge into and rummage around a dwelling without determining who has access to and control over which parts. As the court put it, “the police are simply not allowed to proceed on the theory that ignorance is bliss.”