Georgia v Randolph
547 US 103 (2006)
(The Conflicting Consents Case)
In July of 2006, Janet Randolph called the Americus, Georgia police after a domestic dispute with her husband Scott that involved a disagreement about who should care for their child. Each parent alleged the other was using drugs, but Janet Randolph told the police officers repeatedly that her husband was using drugs that there was physical evidence of his drug use in their house. The police officer asked Scott Randolph for his permission to search the house, but he denied. Janet gave her consent to the search, and the officer searched the house and found what he thought was evidence of drug use. The officer left the house to retrieve an evidence bag and called the district attorney’s office, and was told to stop the search and apply for a search warrant. After returning to the house, Janet Randolph rescinded her consent, but the officer took the piece of evidence and brought the couple to the police station. After obtaining a warrant, the police returned to the house and collected further evidence which they used to indict Scott Randolph for possession of cocaine. Scott Randolph moved to suppress the evidence though, arguing that the evidence was the result of an illegal search and seizure since he had not consented to police searching the property. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the Justices were confronted with the question of whether police could conduct a home search when one of the residents present in the home consents and the other objects. In a 5-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Randolph, determining that if both residents of a home are present and one consents and the other objects, it is unconstitutional to conduct a search of that property according to the reasonableness standard of the Fourth Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts dissented with the majority, arguing that the ruling would limit police officers’ ability to investigate domestic violence disputes. The Chief Justice also argued that sharing a home with another person constituted a knowing release of privacy to the other person. In Fernandez v California, decided in 2014, the Court would again face the issue of who could give consent to a search of a shared property, in that case going against its Georgia v Randolph ruling and determining that when the individual who objects to a property search is removed from the property for illegal behavior, the other resident can provide valid consent for police to search the property even if the other resident still objects.
How the Justices Voted
Majority: Souter, joined by Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer
Dissent: Roberts, joined by Scalia
On the morning of July 6, Randolph's wife, Janet, complained to the police that after a domestic dispute her husband took their son away, and when officers reached the house she told them that her husband was a cocaine user whose habit had caused financial troubles. She mentioned the marital problems and said that she and their son had only recently returned after a stay of several weeks with her parents. Shortly after the police arrived, Scott Randolph returned and explained that he had removed the child to a neighbor's house out of concern that his wife might take the boy out of the country again; he denied cocaine use, and countered that it was in fact his wife who abused drugs and alcohol.
One of the officers, Sergeant Murray, went with Janet Randolph to reclaim the child, and when they returned she not only renewed her complaints about her husband's drug use, but also volunteered that there were "items of drug evidence" in the house. Sergeant Murray asked Scott Randolph for permission to search the house, which he unequivocally refused.
The sergeant turned to Janet Randolph for consent to search, which she readily gave. She led the officer upstairs to a bedroom that she identified as Scott's, where the sergeant noticed a section of a drinking straw with a powdery residue he suspected was cocaine. He then left the house to get an evidence bag from his car and to call the district attorney's office, which instructed him to stop the search and apply for a warrant. When Sergeant Murray returned to the house, Janet Randolph withdrew her consent. The police took the straw to the police station, along with the Randolphs. After getting a search warrant, they returned to the house and seized further evidence of drug use, on the basis of which Scott Randolph was indicted for possession of cocaine.
Can police enter a house without a warrant but with consent when one of the occupants grants consent but the other refuses it?
Whether one occupant may give law enforcement effective consent to search shared premises, as against a co-tenant who is present and states a refusal to permit the search.
To begin with, it is fair to say that a caller standing at the door of shared premises would have no confidence that one occupant's invitation was a sufficiently good reason to enter when a fellow tenant stood there saying, "stay out." Without some very good reason, no sensible person would go inside under those conditions. Fear for the safety of the occupant issuing the invitation, or of someone else inside, would be thought to justify entry, but the justification then would be the personal risk, the threats to life or limb, not the disputed invitation.
The visitor's reticence without some such good reason would show not timidity but a realization that when people living together disagree over the use of their common quarters, a resolution must come through voluntary accommodation, not by appeals to authority. Unless the people living together fall within some recognized hierarchy, like a household of parent and child or barracks housing military personnel of different grades, there is no societal understanding of superior and inferior, a fact reflected in a standard formulation of domestic property law, that "[e]ach cotenant . . . has the right to use and enjoy the entire property as if he or she were the sole owner, limited only by the same right in the other cotenants." In sum, 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.
Since 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.
Disputed permission is thus no match for this central value of the Fourth Amendment.
The co-tenant acting on his own initiative may be able to deliver evidence to the police, and can tell the police what he knows, for use before a magistrate in getting a warrant.
No question has been raised, or reasonably could be, about the authority of the police to enter a dwelling to protect a resident from domestic violence; so long as they have good reason to believe such a threat exists, it would be silly to suggest that the police would commit a tort by entering, say, to give a complaining tenant the opportunity to collect belongings and get out safely, or to determine whether violence (or threat of violence) has just occurred or is about to (or soon will) occur, however much a spouse or other co-tenant objected.
So long as there is no evidence that the police have removed the potentially objecting tenant from the entrance for the sake of avoiding a possible objection, there is practical value in the simple clarity of complementary rules, one recognizing the co-tenant's permission when there is no fellow occupant on hand, the other according dispositive weight to the fellow occupant's contrary indication when he expresses it.
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.
A physically present inhabitant's express refusal of consent to a police search is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant.
If the area is co-owned and even just one person expressly denies consent, then the police cannot search. However, if there is no objection and 1) the person has access to the space, and 2) the person has apparent authority, then the police can rely on their consent to search.
Respondent's estranged wife gave police permission to search the marital residence for items of drug use after respondent, who was also present, had unequivocally refused to give consent. Respondent was indicted for possession of cocaine, and the trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence as products of a warrantless search unauthorized by consent. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed. In affirming, the State Supreme Court held that consent given by one occupant is not valid in the face of the refusal of another physically present occupant, and distinguished United States v. Matlock, which recognized the permissibility of an entry made with the consent of one co-occupant in the other's absence.
In the circumstances here at issue, a physically present co-occupant's stated refusal to permit entry renders warrantless entry and search unreasonable and invalid as to him.
(a) The Fourth Amendment recognizes a valid warrantless entry and search of a premises when the police obtain the voluntary consent of an occupant who shares, or is reasonably believed to share, common authority over the property, and no present co-tenant objects. The constant element in assessing Fourth Amendment reasonableness in such cases is the great significance given to widely shared social expectations, which are influenced by property law but not controlled by its rules. Thus, Matlock not only holds that a solitary co-inhabitant may sometimes consent to a search of shared premises, but also stands for the proposition that the reasonableness of such a search is in significant part a function of commonly held understandings about the authority that co-inhabitants may exercise in ways that affect each other's interests.
(b) Matlock's example of common understanding is readily apparent. The assumption tenants usually make about their common authority when they share quarters is that any one of them may admit visitors, with the consequence that a guest obnoxious to one may be admitted in his absence. Matlock placed no burden on the police to eliminate the possibility of atypical arrangements, absent reason to doubt that the regular scheme was in place.
(c) This Court took a step toward addressing the issue here when it held in Minnesota v. Olson, that overnight houseguests have a legitimate expectation of privacy in their temporary quarters. If that customary expectation is a foundation of a houseguest's Fourth Amendment rights, it should follow that an inhabitant of shared premises may claim at least as much. In fact, a co-inhabitant naturally has an even stronger claim. No sensible person would enter shared premises based on one occupant's invitation when a fellow tenant said to stay out. Such reticence would show not timidity but a realization that when people living together disagree over the use of their common quarters, a resolution must come through voluntary accommodation, not by appeals to authority. Absent some recognized hierarchy, e.g., parent and child, there is no societal or legal understanding of superior and inferior as between co-tenants.
(d) Thus, a disputed invitation, without more, gives an officer no better claim to reasonableness in entering than the officer would have absent any consent. Disputed permission is no match for the Fourth Amendment central value of "respect for the privacy of the home," and the State's other countervailing claims do not add up to outweigh it.
A co-tenant who has an interest in bringing criminal activity to light or in deflecting suspicion from himself can, e.g., tell the police what he knows, for use before a magistrate in getting a warrant. This case, which recognizes limits on evidentiary searches, has no bearing on the capacity of the police, at the invitation of one tenant, to enter a dwelling over another tenant's objection in order to protect a resident from domestic violence. Though alternatives to disputed consent will not always open the door to search for evidence that the police suspect is inside, nothing in social custom or its reflection in private law argues for placing a higher value on delving into private premises to search for evidence in the face of disputed consent, than on requiring clear justification before the government searches private living quarters over a resident's objection.
(e) There are two loose ends. First, while Matlock's explanation for the constitutional sufficiency of a co-tenant's consent to enter and search recognized a co-inhabitant's "right to permit the inspection in his own right," the right to admit the police is not a right as understood under property law. It is, instead, the authority recognized by customary social usage as having a substantial bearing on Fourth Amendment reasonableness in specific circumstances. The question here is whether customary social understanding accords the consenting tenant authority to prevail over the co-tenant's objection, a question Matlock did not answer. Second, a fine line must be drawn to avoid undercutting Matlock--where the defendant, though not present, was in a squad car not far away--and Rodriguez--where the defendant was asleep in the apartment and could have been roused by a knock on the door; if a potential defendant with self-interest in objecting is in fact at the door and objects, the co-tenant's permission does not suffice for a reasonable search, whereas the potential objector, nearby but not part of the threshold colloquy, loses out. Such formalism is justified. So long as there is no evidence that the police have removed the potentially objecting tenant from the entrance specifically to avoid a possible objection, there is practical value in the simple clarity of complementary rules, one recognizing the co-tenant's permission when no fellow occupant is on hand, the other according dispositive weight to the fellow occupant's expressed contrary indication.
(f) Here, respondent's refusal is clear, and nothing in the record justifies the search on grounds independent of his wife's consent.