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Supreme Court limits ability to object to warrantless home search

Our Columbia, Missouri, readers may understand that the United States Constitution generally requires law enforcement to obtain a valid warrant to search a home. There are a few specifically defined emergency exceptions to the rule. Criminal defense lawyers seek to protect constitutional rights. But, courts have held that a person may consent to a warrantless search.

When two or more people share a residence, the issue of consent may be complicated if the occupants disagree about allowing law enforcement to conduct a search. In 2006, two occupants who were present in a residence disagreed and the high court ruled that evidence from a warrantless search could not be used against the person who objected.

Tuesday, the high court limited that ruling. In 2009, law enforcement responded to investigate a robbery call. Police followed a man into an apartment building and knocked on a door where police heard screaming. A woman answered the door and police believe that she appeared to have been assaulted. Officers asked her to step out of the apartment so they could perform a protective search. The man who police followed into the building appeared at the door from inside the apartment and objected to the warrantless search.

Police arrested the man and hauled him down to jail. Officers returned to the apartment and asked the woman again for consent to conduct a warrantless search. She agreed and signed a written document consenting to the search. Law enforcement seized items that were later used to convict the man of the robbery earlier in the day. He appealed, arguing that he had objected to the warrantless search.

The court ruled that at the time of the search, the man was no longer present. The woman’s consent was held valid and any evidence found against the man could be used against him in court.

A majority of the court, comprised of the six male justices, ruled that consent searches are valid and that the woman was the only occupant present when police sought consent. Justice Samuel Alito opined further that because the woman appeared to have been assaulted, she had her own right to consent to the search.

The three women on the high court joined in dissent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "Instead of adhering to the warrant requirement, today's decision tells the police they may dodge it," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court ruling expands police authority in home searches,” David G. Savage, Feb. 25, 2014; United States Supreme Court, “Fernandez v. California, No. 12-7822,” Feb. 25, 2014

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