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Consent to Search When There Are Co-occupants of a Residence

The Supreme Court has long held that police officers may search a jointly occupied residence if one of the occupant’s consents.  United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974).  In 2006 the Court recognized a narrow exception to this rule, holding that consent of one occupant is insufficient when another occupant is present and objects to the search.  Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006).  On February 25, 2014 the Court clarified Randolph by ruling that the police can search a home without a warrant, even if one co-tenant objects, as long as, the objecting co-tenant is no longer on the scene and another co-tenant gives consent. Fernandez v. California, 571 U.S. 292 (2014).

In Fernandez, police officers responding to a call about a violent robbery observed Fernandez run into an apartment building and heard screams coming from the apartment.  Officers knocked on the apartment door, which was answered by a woman who appeared to be battered and bleeding.  The suspect then came to the door and objected to the officers entering the apartment.  The officers removed the suspect from the apartment, arrested him, and took him to the police station on suspicion he had assaulted the female. An officer returned to the apartment an hour later and, after obtaining the female’s oral and written consent, searched the premises where he found several items linking Fernandez to the robbery.

Fernandez’s attorney, citing Georgia v. Randolph, attempted to have the items found in the apartment suppressed from evidence, arguing that Fernandez had objected to the search of the apartment before he was taken into custody. The Court refused to suppress the evidence and stated that Randolph was strictly limited to situations when the objecting co-tenant is physically present. The only case in the 10th Circuit that has addressed this issue is the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico.  of the New Mexico Court has adhered to the strict limitation of Randolph and found that consent to search will not be invalidated by a defendant’s objections if the defendant is either (1) not present while consent was given, or (2) has been lawfully removed. United States v. Montoya, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152828 (D.N.M., Nov. 2, 2016).

The lawful tenant of a residence has the right to invite law enforcement to enter and conduct a search.  In fact, the Court explained that if a lawful tenant wants to invite police inside her house, police shouldn't have to first get permission from a magistrate before accepting the invitation. Requiring officers to obtain a warrant when a warrantless search is justified may interfere with law enforcement strategies and impose an unmerited burden on the person willing to consent to an immediate search.

A third party may consent to a search of property if that third party has either (1) mutual use of the property by virtue of joint access, or (2) control for most purposes over it. United States v. Guillen, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75832 (D.N.M., Sept. 8, 2017). When a third-party consents to a search, officers must inquire into the relationship between the defendant and the consenter to determine whether the third party has apparent authority to consent and whether that relationship is the type where it could be presumed that the consenter has control over the property. Unless facts demonstrate that the defendant and the third party had some sort of agreement—leading to an expectation of privacy in his room—the third party’s authority to consent is presumed. And when a third-party consents to a search, and the defendant fails to object to the search, the court will treat the failure to object as a “good” indicator that consent existed.

The court in Guillen denied a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence that was seized from a child’s room after the father had consented to the search. After entering the home and questioning the child, who was a suspect in a criminal investigation, the child’s father returned home, and upon his arrival officers asked for his consent to search the home. Although the child was a very private person and had a previous agreement with his father that he could not enter his room without his permission, the court found that police officers did not violate the child’s expectation of privacy because it was reasonable for them to believe that his father had apparent authority to consent to the search and were unaware of any agreements made between the child and his father.

To sum it up, the Court’s opinion focuses on the physical presence of the objecting co-tenant.  If the objecting co-tenant is physically present and objects to a search, then the police cannot search the residence.  If the objecting co-tenant has been lawfully removed from the scene then the police may search if there is consent from a co-tenant. 

          

“Fernandez v. California— Consent Required for a Warrantless Search” was written by Suzanne D. Paulson, OMAG Associate Counsel and updated by Alan Taylor, legal intern. You may contact the author at spaulson@omag.org. The information in this Risk Alert is intended solely for general informational purposes and should not be construed as or used as a substitute for legal advice or legal opinions with respect to specific situations, since such advice requires an evaluation of precise factual circumstances by an attorney.

                                                                                                                                                      

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    March 2014 (updated 7/2018)

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