Appealed from: Supreme Court of Georgia
Oral argument: Nov. 8, 2005
In this case the Supreme Court will resolve the issue of whether or not police can legally search the home of an occupant who consents to a search despite the explicit objections of another occupant. Police searched the house of Mr. Randolph with the consent of his estranged wife but against his unequivocal objections. Randolph would have the Court find that the search violated his reasonable expectation of privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Georgia, however, reasons that a joint tenant's reasonable expectation of privacy is not infringed in this case because joint tenants assume a reduced expectation of privacy. Thus, the Supreme Court's decision in this case will interpret the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches of homes with multiple occupants.
Can police search a home when a co-habitant consents and the other co-habitant is present and does not consent?
Can police legally search the home of an occupant who consents to the search despite the objections of another present occupant?
On July 6, 2001, police arrived at the Randolph residence after Mrs. Randolph reported a domestic dispute with her estranged husband, Defendant Scott Randolph. Randolph v. State, 590 S.E.2d 834, 836 (Georgia, 2003). The couple had separated two months earlier, and Mrs. Randolph left the home at that time with their son to Canada. Id. She then returned with him to the house on July 4, 2001 to collect her belongings. Id. On the morning of July 6, Mrs. Randolph told police that Mr. Randolph had taken their son away and accused him of using cocaine. Id. He denied such use and contended that Mrs. Randolph was highly inebriated. Id.
The police then requested Mr. Randolph's consent to search the house. Id. After he explicitly refused, the police requested and received consent from Mrs. Randolph to search the house. Id. She took the police to an upstairs bedroom, where the police found a "piece of cut straw," which contained white residue. Id. The police believed it was cocaine and immediately contacted the district attorney, who instructed them to obtain a warrant before continuing with the search. Id. at 397. Mrs. Randolph then withdrew her consent to the search, but the police obtained a search warrant and seized various drug-related items. Id.
Mr. Randolph was indicted for possession of cocaine. Id. He moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that it was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights because he expressly objected to the search. Id. The trial court denied the motion, but the Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed. Id. That court first acknowledged that in US v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 170 (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court defined "valid consent" for a police search as "the consent of a person who possesses common authority over a premise . . . as against the absent non-consenting person with whom that authority is shared." Id. (emphasis added). The appellate court, however, distinguished the present case from Matlock because Mr. Randolph was not absent, but rather unequivocally objected to the search at the house. Id. at 836-37. The court found it "reasonable" for Mr. Randolph to believe that his "stated desire for privacy would be honored, even if there is another occupant who could consent to the search." Id. at 836. Accordingly, the court held that the search was conducted in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Id. After the appellate court's decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Georgia, State v. Randolph, 604 S.E.2d 835 (2004), the State sought review by the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted writ of certiorari on April 18, 2005.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals against warrantless searches of a home except in certain well-defined circumstances. Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27, 31 (2001). One of these circumstances is where the police obtain consent for the search, either from "the individual whose property is searched, or from a third party who possesses common authority over the premises." Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 181 (1990) (citing Matlock, 415 U.S. at 171). Whether or not the consent of one party can override the objections of another party, where both possess common authority, is a legal issue over which courts across the nation are divided and that the Supreme Court will resolve through this case.
Georgia argues that a warrantless search premised on the consent of one joint occupant of a house who has common authority, despite another occupant's refusal to consent, is consistent with the Fourth Amendment and Supreme Court precedents. Brief for Petitioner State of Georgia at 6. Further, a reduced expectation of privacy, Georgia argues, accompanies a joint occupancy. Id. Thus, when a consenting occupant grants access to search areas of the premise shared with others, the other tenant's reasonable expectation of privacy is not infringed. Id.
Randolph argues that the consent exception to warrantless searches does not apply here because he clearly objected to the search. Brief for Respondent Randolph at 5-6. Randolph reasons that when police search a tenant's premise over his objections, his reasonable expectation of privacy is violated. See Id. at 6. Indeed, personal security and privacy in one's home means nothing, according to Randolph, if police could simply seek the permission of each occupant "until a single person—whether out of spite, ignorance of the objections of others, or fear that an objection would be meaningless—overrode the objections of all the others." Id. at 6, 11-12. Randolph also highlights Georgia's failure to identify any legal authority to support their theory of the case. Id. at 7.
The outcome of this case will affect privacy and personal security in the home. Should Georgia prevail, the police could legally search a home despite adamant objections of one of the occupants and without probable cause, as long as the police obtain consent from a person who has "sufficient control – or at least apparent control." Id. at 16. This person could be a landlord, a child, or even a guest. Id. at 17. A ruling for Georgia could also undermine domestic tranquility because the ruling would sustain one spouse's proposed intrusion into the marital home and privacy over the other spouse's objections. Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers at 13. See Randolph v. State, 590 S.E.2d at 398.
This case also implicates the interests of states' power to conduct searches pursuant to consent by a third party. Brief of Amicus Curiae Colorado et. al. at 3. A ruling for Randolph would undermine the efficacy of consent searches, which, as Colorado and other states argue, may be the only means of obtaining important and reliable evidence "where the police have some evidence of illicit activity, but lack probable cause to arrest or search." Id. at 7 (citing Schneckloth v. Bustamante, 412 U.S. 218, 228 (1973)). Indeed, valuable evidence may be lost or destroyed if police were unable to obtain a search warrant in time. Further, "the community has a real interest in encouraging consent, for the resulting search may yield necessary evidence . . . that may insure that a wholly innocent person is not wrongly charged with a criminal offense." Schneckloth, 412 U.S. at 243.
To be sure, the warrant requirement hinders law enforcement, but it was created as a fairness check on the government. There is a trade-off between privacy interests and the government's interest in finding evidence of criminal behavior. The Constitution compels the government to take the privacy interest seriously, so that it may only perform warrantless searches where reasonable. Whenever the number of circumstances where searches are considered reasonable is increased, the right to privacy is to the same extent diminished.
The Fourth Amendment has been interpreted as generally prohibiting warrantless, unreasonable searches of a home, with certain exceptions. Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 564 (2004); Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 181 (1990); Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980); Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 474 (1971). One of those exceptions is where the occupant of the premises to be searched consents to the search. U.S. v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 165 (1974); Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973); Davis v. United States, 328 U.S. 582, 593-594 (1946); Zap v. United States, 328 U.S. 624, 630 (1946). In Matlock, the Supreme Court considered the situation where one occupant was present and consented to a search while the other was absent and did not consent. 415 U.S. 164. The Court held that the search was reasonable when a co-occupant with "common authority" over the premises consented because the occupant who is absent has "assumed the risk" that his co-occupant will allow the police to search the premises. Id.
The justification for the Matlock decision is crucial to understanding the position of the State in the present case. One interpretation of Matlock is that it falls within the consent exception because there was a form of consent. However, Matlock may have created a new exception to the general prohibition on warrantless searches based on the concept of expectations of the parties. Other exceptions to the warrantless search rule created by the Court were similarly based on the conclusion that those exceptions are reasonable, as required by the Fourth Amendment. But, these exceptions have been very few. Kyllo v. U.S., 533 U.S. 27 (2001).
The distinction between reliance on the consent exception and crafting Matlock as an exception in itself is subtle, but important because the parties will make arguments based both on the texts of various decisions and also on the reasonableness of the search itself. In other words, the State could argue that a decision in its favor is implied (required) by the decision in Matlock, and/or they could argue that even if not compelled by Matlock, a decision in its favor is compelled because the search was reasonable. Naturally, in response the respondent will argue both that Matlock does not apply to the present circumstances and also that the search was inherently unreasonable.
The Applicability of Matlock
The Matlock exception dictates that a search is reasonable when one "assumes the risk" that another person with "common authority" over the premises in question allows police to search it. The one set of facts that surely qualifies for the Matlock exception is that in the Matlock case itself: one co-occupant is absent and does not consent to a search, but a co-occupant allows the police to search the house. In the present case, both occupants were present but gave conflicting answers to the consent question.
The language from Matlock regarding the assumption of risk is not entirely clear or easily distinguished from the reasonability analysis. The risk of which the Court speaks seems to only exist based on the Court's finding the search to be reasonable. In order to avoid a circular argument, the "risk" in question would have to be something other than the possibility that the police search is rendered legal. For example, the court could have said that he assumed the risk by leaving home and knowing that his wife may give police consent to search the home. See, i.e., Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731, 740 (1969) (holding that where the defendant allowed his cousin to use his duffel bag, that he assumed the risk that the cousin would allow the bag to be searched).
However, Matlock may still be interpreted in one of two ways by the present Court. Either a search is reasonable when all non-consenting occupants are absent and at least one consenting occupant is present, or a search is reasonable whenever any of the occupants consents to the search. Of course, the State argues that the court in Matlock meant the latter, while the respondent argues that only the first interpretation is strictly necessary to arrive at the conclusion in the Matlock case and that the language should not be construed more broadly.
Reasonability of the Search
This section addresses the reasonability issue as distinct from the application of the Matlock ruling, though the parties may refer to reasonability analysis as "extending the consent exception." As stated above, to discuss the present issue as though it is the same as a case of consent is misleading, with a possible exception discussed in the next section.
Because of the general presumption that a warrantless search is illegal, Groh, 540 U.S. at 564, the Court will have to decide of the circumstances in this case are enough to overcome that presumption. The State argues that the same reasoning that led to the conclusion in Matlock should apply here, i.e. that the state has legitimate law enforcement interests in being able to conduct searches in cases like this. Brief for Petitioner State of Georgia at 20. The respondent argues that while the circumstances of Matlock may have justified a search, a critical difference in this case, the presence of the non-consenting occupant, makes the search unreasonable. Brief for Respondent Randolph at 14. The respondent argues that, since in the present case the non-consenting occupant was present and objected to the search, there is no lack of clarity as to whether the consent is valid as there might be where the non-consenting occupant is absent. Id at 26.
Additionally, the State argues that the search should be allowed because the expectation of decreased rights flows naturally from the lowered expectation of privacy that comes from sharing a home with someone else. Brief for Petitioner State of Georgia at 11. For instance, if the wife had wanted to, rather than allowing the police inside, she could have taken the evidence from the house and brought it to the police station. Thus, allowing the search in this case arguably did not harm the respondent.
The respondent will likely reply that if there were other means of achieving the same result, it is not necessary to burden the rights of the parties by allowing the search in this case (the law enforcement interest is less compelling). They will also argue that this alternative is superior in terms of protecting rights because if Mrs. Randolph brought the evidence in question to the court house, the police would have access to that evidence, but nothing more. Brief for Respondent Randolph at 27.
Question of Rights
One way the Court may reconcile Matlock would be to interpret the case as recognizing not only a right to be free from unreasonable warrantless searches, but also an unfettered right to grant police access to premises over which one has "common authority." Brief for Petitioner State of Georgia, at 13. This solution explains why the police in Matlock probably would not have been able to lawfully search the home if no one was there, but they were able to search if just one person consented. However, even if this is the case, the State is still in the unenviable position of arguing that the right to grant access to one's home is more significant than one's right to be free from warrantless searches. Although this reconciles Matlock, the Court may not find it persuasive.
This case essentially comes down to a determination of what is reasonable, which is very difficult to determine clearly. The Matlock case attempted to exploit the phrase "assumes the risk" in order to create a principle, but that may have merely confused the issue. The respondent can distinguish Matlock from the present case because respondent was present and objected to the search. However, the only legitimate law enforcement interests that could have justified the decision in Matlock would seem to justify a decision in the State's favor here. The only question, then, is whether the Court will continue to diminish the right to be free from warrantless search in favor of law enforcement interests, or whether it will retreat from its decision in Matlock.