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SCOTUS to Hear Fernandez, a Calif. 'Warrantless Search' Case

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By William Peacock, Esq. on May 22, 2013 7:01 AM

In 2009, the search for a robbery suspect led police to the doorstep of convicted-felon Walter Fernandez. Police were investigating nearby when they heard the screams of his girlfriend and cohabitant, Roxanne Rojas. Once backup arrived, they knocked on the door and Rojas, with a bruised nose and bloody hand, answered.

Fernandez came to the door and refused to allow the police to enter, stating, “You don’t have any right to come in here. I know my rights.” He was taken into custody, and later identified as the suspect in the nearby robbery.

A short time later, the officers returned, notified Rojas that Fernandez was a suspect in a robbery, and asked for consent to search. She gave both written and verbal consent. The search turned up a shotgun, ammunition, a butterfly knife, and gang paraphernalia.

Fernandez argued that, under the Supreme Court's holding in Georgia v. Randolph (2006) and the Ninth Circuit's holding in United States v. Murphy (2008), the evidence found in the search should have been suppressed. The California Court of Appeal upheld the trial court's admission of the evidence and explicitly rejected Murphy.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and to resolve the split in lower courts' interpretations of Randolph.

Randolph's Fine Line

The Randolph decision was simple, yet limited. After noting that they had upheld warrantless searches stemming from a cohabitant's consent, including one case where a defendant was not present to object (he was in a squad car nearby) and in another case, where the defendant was asleep inside the apartment, the court stated:

If those cases are not to be undercut by today's holding, we have to admit that we are drawing a fine line; 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 ... 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 ...

A fine line indeed, but what about situations like these, where the defendant objects, is taken into custody, and later, his cohabitant consents?

The Murphy Rule

In Murphy, a man living in a storage unit (with a meth lab) refused to allow a search. The man who leased the unit was also arrested, and this time, he consented to a search, not knowing of Murphy's prior refusal. The Ninth Circuit held the search impermissible, noting that:

If the police cannot prevent a co-tenant from objecting to a search through arrest, surely they cannot arrest a co-tenant and then seek to ignore an objection he has already made. Nor, more generally, do we see any reason to limit the Randolph rule to an objecting tenant's removal by police. Once a co-tenant has registered his objection, his refusal to grant consent remains effective barring some objective manifestation that he has changed his position and no longer objects.

A Finer Fine Line

The California court rejected the Ninth Circuit's approach, and instead followed the reasoning of at least four other federal circuit courts and two state supreme courts. These courts rely upon the physical presence requirement, limiting Randolph's protections to physically present objecting defendants. Their holdings draw an even more fine line: if the defendant refuses to allow a search and is then arrested, a cohabitant's consent is sufficient.

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