For the past forty years, the United States Supreme Court has continually tinkered with the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s general prohibition on warrantless searches, including the allowance of warrantless searches that are conducted after the police have obtained voluntary consent from the individual whose property is being searched. In 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment recognizes a warrantless search of a premises when the police obtain the consent of an occupant who shares common authority over the property. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 170 (1974). Thereafter, the Court expanded its decision in Matlock to include situations where a warrantless search of a premises was conducted based upon the “consent of a third party whom the police, at the time of the entry, reasonably believe to possess common authority over the premises, but who in fact does not.” Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 186 (1990). In 2006, the Court again modified its prior decisions on this issue, ruling that the consent of one co-occupant was insufficient to authorize police to conduct a warrantless search of a premises if another objecting occupant was “physically present” at the time. Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006).
On Tuesday, the Court decided to rework its decision in Randolph, and severely limit its future application. In Fernandez v. California, the Court held that the rule set forth in Randolf was “extremely narrow,” and does not apply to situations when the police have received consent from one co-occupant after the objecting occupant had been removed from the premises. The Court explained that the co-occupant’s initial objection to the police’s entry is not everlasting, and can be overridden by the consent of a co-occupant after the objecting party is no longer present. Notably, the Court held that the consent of a co-occupant will authorize a search even when the objecting party has been removed from the premises involuntarily, including when removal occurs as a result of police conduct. The Court explained that searches occurring after the police have removed the objector will be permissible so long as the reason for removing the occupant was “objectively reasonable.” In Fernandez, the police had removed the objecting co-occupant after he was suspected of being involved in a robbery and believed to have battered his girlfriend moments before the police had arrived. Several hours later, the police returned to the residence and conducted a warrantless search of the premises based upon the girlfriend’s consent.
Three members of the Court (Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, & Kagan) disagreed with the majority’s decision, noting that “[i]n its zeal to diminish Randolph, today’s decision overlooks the warrant requirement’s venerable role as the “bulwark of Fourth Amendment protection.” They explained that “[r]educing Randolph to a “narrow exception,” the Court declares the main rule to be that “consent by one resident of jointly occupied premises is generally sufficient to justify a warrantless search. Such a declaration “has it backwards, for consent searches themselves are a “`jealously and carefully drawn’ exception” to “the Fourth Amendment rule ordinarily prohibiting the warrantless entry of a person’s house as unreasonable per se.” (citations omitted).
- Adam Liptak, Justices Rule on Home Searches and Defendants’ Frozen Assets, The New York Times (February 25, 2014)
- Orin Kerr, Five thoughts about Fernandez v. California, The Chicago Times (February 26, 2014)