Once upon a time, a wolf came to the home of a little pig:
Wolf: “Hello, little pig, let me come in.”
Pig: “No, no! Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!”
Wolf: “Well, then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.”
Pig’s Wife: “That won’t be necessary, Wolf, come in, come in.”
But it’s not yet time to rewrite the tale of the Three Little Pigs.
Last week, the Supreme Court decided Georgia v. Randolph, a Fourth Amendment case involving where the police searched a couple’s home. The wife (Janet Randolph) consented to the search; the husband (Scott Randolph) expressly refused consent to the search. The police searched anyway and found evidence of Scott’s drug violations. Can the police search a person’s home when he expressly refuses to consent yet when a co-habitant consents?
The majority of the Supreme Court held that the search violates the Fourth Amendment (Justices Souter, Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer). Chief Justice Roberts, along with Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. Justice Alito did not participate.
What makes this case difficult is that it seemingly fits within several different strands of Fourth Amendment doctrine that are not entirely coherent. In the end, I believe that the majority got it right, but I think that the case presents a very tricky issue given existing Fourth Amendment doctrine.
It is clear that Scott had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his home. The general rule under the Fourth Amendment would be that the police need a warrant to enter and search a person’s home. However, one exception is if a person consents to the search.
But what if two people have control over the area that is to be searched or the things that are to be seized? If Scott weren’t home, Janet’s consent would allow the police to validly search the home. In United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974), the Supreme Court held that the “consent of one who possesses common authority over premises or effects is valid as against the absent, nonconsenting person with whom that authority is shared.” In Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177 (1990), the Court held that even if the police wrongly believe that the person consenting to the search has authority over the property, the search is valid so long as the police error was reasonable and in good faith.
This case differs from Matlock in that Scott is present, not absent. And Scott has expressly denied his consent. Whom are the police to listen to — Janet who consents or Scott who doesn’t?
Chief Justice Roberts, in dissent, notes that the Court’s holding “provides protection on a random and happenstance basis, protecting, for example, a co-occupant who happens to be at the front door when the other occupant consents to a search, but not one napping or watching television in the next room.” At first blush, he seems to have a point. The result is odd — if Scott weren’t there to say no, the cops could come in and search. So why should things turn on whether Scott luckily happened to be there when the cops came knocking? The majority opinion finesses the issue but doesn’t really do a good job of explaining a difference.
I believe that there is an important difference, and I explained it in an earlier post. I wrote: