SCOTUS ruling clarifies roommate consent to search under 4th amendment

The 4th amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlines various protections for citizens; one being that it protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures of their home.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a search of a home is not an unreasonable search under the 4th amendment if authorities obtain a search warrant prior to the search. The court has also ruled that a search is not unreasonable if police do not obtain a warrant but obtain consent from the sole occupant of the house or apartment.

But what if there is more than one occupant of a residence? Who is allowed to give the consent to a warrantless search then?

A U.S. Supreme Court recently addressed this very issue.

The case

In 2009, authorities were investigating an assault and robbery of a California man. A source told them that the assailant (referred to as Fernandez) was located in a nearby apartment. The police went to the apartment and a female opened the door; Fernandez was behind her.

Authorities asked to enter and search the premises, but Fernandez refused to give the consent. However, authorities noticed that the female appeared to have been assaulted. And, with cause to suspect Fernandez of the assault, arrested him on the spot.

An hour later, with Fernandez behind bars, authorities returned to the apartment where they received consent from the female to enter and search the residence. Authorities uncovered a knife and a sawed-off shotgun that incriminated Fernandez of the earlier assault on the California man.

The evidence was later used to convict Fernandez of second degree robbery. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

The appeal

Fernandez appealed his conviction and argued that the police illegally obtained the evidence from his apartment (in violation of his 4th amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure) because he did not give them consent to enter the apartment.

But did police conduct an unlawful search and seizure of Fernandez's apartment? Criminal defense advocates claim that the law seems pretty clear on the issue and that police had no right to search the home without his consent.

But, the appellate court said no, and so did the U.S. Supreme Court in their recent decision. But why?

The law

The law states that when more than one person occupies a house or apartment, one of the parties can consent to the search as long as that party "possesses common authority over [the] premises or effects" UNLESS another person who occupies the premises objects-such as what happened in the Fernandez incident.

The appeals court, disagreed, because they made a slight distinction in this law. The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed.

Recent SCOTUS ruling

The opinion stated that although the law is correct, it only applies when the party who objects to the consent is actually physically present when the other occupant consents. Since the female occupant gave consent when Fernandez was not present (he was in police custody), her warrantless consent was allowed.

The court also stated that even if the law applied, the officers had probable cause under the 4th sufficient to obtain a search warrant and thus would've uncovered the incriminating evidence anyway after procuring the correct paperwork.

The dissenting Justices, however, blatantly disagreed with this reasoning.

"Today's decision tells the police that they may dodge [the warrant requirement] nevermind ample time to secure the approval of a neutral magistrate," the dissent wrote.

Were the police justified in dodging the warrant requirement as the dissent argument claims? Should they have procured a warrant even though it was likely they would have obtained a warrant for the incriminating evidence anyway? According to the majority of the Justices-yes.

The ruling will no doubt change the way searches are conducted all across the country in the years to come.