Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Supreme Court: Presence is Required to Prevent Certain Home Searches

Police officers can lawfully search a residence without a warrant if one of the occupants consents, even if another doesn’t. (United States v. Matlock, 415 U. S. 164 (1974).) But if that other occupant is present and objects to the search, the officers typically may not enter. (Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U. S. 103 (2006).) 

(To learn whether the consent of occupants like houseguests and housekeepers validates a police search, and to understand the permissible scope of a search authorized by only one occupant, see Agreeing to a Search.)

The remaining consent-to-search question—answered by the Supreme Court on Tuesday—was whether the police can enter a home well after the objecting resident leaves. What happens if they again approach the willing occupant, who again gives them the go-ahead? (Fernandez v. California, 571 U.S. __ (Feb. 25, 2014).)

In Search of a Suspect

In October of 2009, one man tried to rob another at knifepoint. After the victim began to run, the knife-wielder summoned four other men who had been waiting nearby. These cohorts knocked the victim to the ground, beat him, and took his wallet and cellphone.

Before the four accomplices had captured him, the victim called 911. After officers arrived on scene, they received a tip that the man with the knife was in a nearby apartment. They then saw a man run through a nearby alley and into the apartment building in question. Minutes later, they heard screams and sounds of fighting emanating from the building.

The officers approached the apartment unit from which the sounds came and knocked on its door. A crying woman with a red face, a bump on her nose, and blood on her clothes answered the door while holding a baby. After the officers asked her to step aside so that they could conduct a "protective sweep," a man dressed in only boxer shorts appeared and pronounced, “You don’t have any right to come in here. I know my rights.” (Id.) The officers arrested him upon suspicion of assaulting the woman and took him away for booking.

Better Late Than Never

Approximately an hour later, one officer returned to the apartment and received consent to search it from the woman who had initially answered the door. Inside the police found gang paraphernalia, a knife, clothing the man with the knife had worn, ammunition, and a sawed-off shotgun, each of which the prosecution used to convict the arrestee in his subsequent trial.

Not Here? Too Bad

The Supreme Court considered whether the trial judge should have granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence. The Court said no—that an occupant must be physically present in order to stop the police from searching a home when another occupant has authorized the inspection. (Note that if officers remove an objecting occupant without a legitimate basis, they probably cannot enter.)

As the Court had previously said, “[A] person who shares a residence with others assumes the risk that ‘any one of them may admit visitors, with the consequence that a guest obnoxious to one may nevertheless be admitted in his absence by another.’” (Id.)

For further explanation of the law, see If my roommate tells the cops they can come in, but I tell them they can’t, can they?