U.S. Supreme Court

Cops may search home when suspect objects but girlfriend later consents, Supreme Court says

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The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the warrantless search of a home when the suspect objected, but his girlfriend agreed to the search after the suspect’s arrest.

In a 6-3 decision (PDF), the court refused to extend a 2006 case, Georgia v. Randolph, which said police can’t search a home when one person who lives there objects and the other consents. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the new case, Fernandez v. California.

“Putting the exception the court adopted in Randolph to one side,” Alito wrote, “the lawful occupant of a house or apartment should have the right to invite the police to enter the dwelling and conduct a search. Any other rule would trample on the rights of the occupant who is willing to consent.”

The occupant may want the search to quell suspicion, Alito said, or to remove dangerous contraband.

Alito summarized the facts that gave rise to the police search in the case before the court. Police investigating an attack on a man who was slashed and robbed were told the suspect was in a nearby apartment building. Police heard screaming coming from an apartment there and knocked on the door. A woman with blood on her shirt and a bump on her nose, Roxanne Rojas, answered the door. At that point, Walter Fernandez came to the door and told police they had no right to enter.

Suspecting that Fernandez had attacked Rojas, police arrested him. The robbery victim then identified Fernandez as his attacker and Fernandez was taken to the police station for booking. About an hour later, Rojas consented to a search of the apartment, which turned up a knife, clothing worn by the robbery suspect and a sawed-off shotgun.

“Denying someone in Rojas’ position the right to allow the police to enter her home would also show disrespect for her independence,” Alito said. “Having beaten Rojas, petitioner would bar her from controlling access to her own home until such time as he chose to relent. The Fourth Amendment does not give him that power.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent that was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “Instead of adhering to the warrant requirement,” Ginsburg wrote, “today’s decision tells the police they may dodge it, nevermind ample time to secure the approval of a neutral magistrate.” Ginsburg said the decision “shrinks to petite size our holding in Georgia v. Randolph.”

Ginsburg acknowledges that domestic abuse is a serious problem, but says its specter “hardly necessitates the diminution of the Fourth Amendment rights at stake here.”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “SCOTUS considers constitutionality of home search when suspect objects and girlfriend later consents”

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