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Supreme Court Decision — Warrantless Searches Okay If One Occupant of Shared Residence Consents

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. With some exceptions, law enforcement must obtain a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a search of private property or a person. Evidence obtained from an unlawful search is inadmissible.

One of the exceptions to the warrant requirement is consent. A police officer is permitted to conduct a search without a warrant if the party consents to it. However, consent is a complex concept. And, because consent can affect the lawfulness of the search, its meaning is important.

The February 2014 Supreme Court decision in Fernandez v. California added another layer to the definition of consent:

  • In the Fernandez case, the police officers knocked on the door of an apartment where they saw a robbery suspect flee. Co-resident Roxanne Rojas answered the door and agreed to let the police conduct a search. The defendant, Walter Fernandez, objected. The law enforcement officer noticed fresh injuries to Ms. Rojas and brought Mr. Fernandez to the police station for questioning about the battery.
  • Officers returned to Mr. Ferandez’s home while he was absent and Ms. Rojas again gave her consent for them to search the premises. The search wielded substantial evidence against Mr. Fernandez, and he was later convicted of the robbery.
  • The defendant’s lawyer moved to suppress the evidence based on a violation of Mr. Fernandez’s Fourth Amendment rights, and cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in Georgia v. Randolph. In the earlier case, the defendant Scott Randolph’s estranged wife gave her consent for the police to search the residence she shared with the defendant. At the same time, he explicitly refused consent. The court ruled that the search was unreasonable as to Mr. Randolph, and the evidence collected was inadmissible at his drug trial. This case differed from Fernandez v. California because Mr. Randolph was present at the time the co-occupant gave consent, whereas Mr. Fernandez was not.

If you have been charged with a crime in Cleveland, OH, an experienced criminal defense attorney can review your case for Fourth Amendment challenges to keep incriminating evidence out.

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