Photo Mark C. Ide
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Consider the following scenario: You and a partner respond to a call of a domestic disturbance at a residence. Upon arrival, you are greeted by the female caller who tells you her husband took their son away. She also volunteers that her husband is a drug user and that his cocaine habit has caused them both to suffer financial troubles. She tells you she and her son had recently returned to the house after staying several weeks with her parents in Canada.
Soon afterward, the husband returns home. You obtain his side of the story, and he says he took their son to a neighbor's house out of concern his wife might take him out of the country again. Upon questioning about his cocaine use, the husband counters it is his wife who abuses drugs and alcohol, not him.
The wife continues to assert the husband is a drug user and even claims items of drug evidence are in the house. You ask the husband if he would mind if you search the house for the items. The husband unequivocally refuses your request. You then turn to the wife and ask for a consent to search the residence. She readily agrees.
What do you do? The husband states in no uncertain terms police officers may not search the residence, but the wife consents. Whose rights prevail?
The Legal Opinion
This was precisely the question the United States Supreme Court answered in an opinion written by Justice Souter last March in Georgia v. Randolph. In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court held if the police are at a residence but do not have a warrant to search the home, and if the two occupants are present at the same time and one consents to a search but the other objects, the police may not search the home in the face of that objection.
The Underlying Action
The police in Georgia v. Randolph decided to enter the house after Janet Randolph gave her consent to search the house over Scott Randolph's vehement objection. She led the officers upstairs to a bedroom she identified as her husband's, where the officers found a section of a drinking straw with a powdery residue they suspected was cocaine. The officers exited the residence and telephoned the district attorney's office while still on scene. In the meantime, Janet withdrew her consent to search. The police took the Randolphs to the police department along with the contraband they had seized. Afterward, the police obtained a search warrant, returned to the residence and seized further evidence of drug use. Scott was later indicted for possession of cocaine.
Scott moved to suppress the evidence, arguing the police conducted a warrantless search of his house over his express refusal despite the fact his wife gave "unauthorized" consent. The trial court denied Scott's motion, ruling that because Janet had common authority over the residence, her consent was valid.
Scott appealed and the Court of Appeals for Georgia reversed the trial court's ruling. The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the appellate court, stating, "the consent to conduct a warrantless search of a residence given by one occupant is not valid in the face of the refusal of another occupant who is physically present at the scene to permit a warrantless search." The United States Supreme Court took the case to resolve the conflict of authority over whether one occupant may give law enforcement officers effective consent to search shared premises against the authority of a co-tenant who is present and states a refusal to permit the search.
The Supreme Court's Analysis
The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the police officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they searched the residence after obtaining a valid consent of one co-habitant over the objection of the other co-habitant. Police officers are generally taught the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Typically, officers must have a warrant to conduct a search; however, some recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement exist. One of those exceptions is consent.
When both occupants of a residence are present and one occupant objects to the other occupant's consent, according to Justice Souter, "there is no common understanding that one co-tenant generally has a right or authority to prevail over the express wishes of another, whether the issue is the color of the curtains or invitations to outsiders." Justice Souter went on to state "[s]ince the co-tenant wishing to open the door to a third party has no recognized authority in law or social practice to prevail over a present and objecting co-tenant, his disputed invitation, without more, gives a police officer no better claim to reasonableness in entering than the officer would have in the absence of any consent at all." As such, the Court held "a warrantless search of a shared dwelling for evidence over the express refusal of consent by a physically present resident cannot be justified as reasonable as to him on the basis of consent given to the police by another resident."
Does the Decision Undercut Matlock & Rodriguez?
Justice Souter declared the Georgia decision does not undermine the Supreme Court's prior decisions in Illinois v. Rodriguez and United States v. Matlock.
In Rodriguez, a woman had told police officers Rodriguez had beaten her. She took the officers to "their" apartment where Rodriguez was sleeping. She had a key to the apartment she used to let the officers inside. When the officers entered, they found Rodriguez and some drugs. However, the woman did not actually live in the apartment. The United States Supreme Court held in Rodriguez the police officers reasonably believed the woman had the authority to allow them to enter Rodriguez' apartment, and, therefore, the evidence against Rodriguez was admissible.