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The Supreme Court ruled today that police may search a home without a warrant if one occupant consents. That's even if another occupant has previously objected to a search. As NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, the 6-to-3 decision seems to seriously undercut an earlier ruling from the high court.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Eight years ago, the court, by a close vote, ruled that when two occupants of a home disagree about whether to allow police to conduct a warrantless search, the police must defer to the person who objects. But today, the high court ruled that when the objecting occupant is no longer there, his objections are no longer valid.
The decision came in the case of Walter Fernandez, suspected in a gang robbery and assault. Police, looking for the robber, entered an apartment house and heard screaming from one apartment. When they knocked on the door, a woman carrying a baby answered. She appeared to be crying, had a bump on her nose and blood on her shirt. She agreed to let the police search the apartment.
But at that point Fernandez stepped from the back of the apartment wearing only boxer shorts. He told police they had no right to search the apartment and that he was refusing consent. Police, suspecting domestic violence, then arrested Fernandez and took him away. An hour later, they returned, without a warrant, got the woman's consent in writing and searched the apartment.
They found a sawed off shotgun, ammunition, gang paraphernalia, and clothing that matched the description of the robber's clothes. Fernandez was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He challenged the conviction, contending the evidence against him had been obtained through an illegal police search. Today, he lost.
Writing for a six justice majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that while police may not override a home dweller's objections to a warrantless search when that person is physically present, once the objector is gone from the premises those objections are no longer valid if another occupant consents to the search.
The decision cuts the heart out of the high court's 2006 ruling, says Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represented Fernandez in the Supreme Court.
JEFFREY FISHER: Well, it's a body blow to the court's prior holding. The court's opinion seems to be quite clear that the police can either remove somebody from the premises, if they have the authority to do so, under an arrest or any other way, or simply wait until the person isn't around anymore.
TOTENBERG: George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg says even without today's ruling, police rarely find everyone at home when they come to the door.
STEPHEN SALTZBURG: If you're not there, you'll have no opportunity to object. You have to be lucky enough to be physically present and able to object when the police ask for consent.
TOTENBERG: Today's decision adds that even if you are lucky enough to be there, police can wait until you leave to get consent for a search from a more willing occupant.
Dissenting from the ruling were Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan. Writing for them, Ginsburg noted that the court has long required warrants for searches of a home, except in special and very limited circumstances. Instead of adhering to the warrant requirement in the Constitution, she said, today's decision tells the police they may dodge it.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.