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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
WALTER FERNANDEZ, PETITIONER v. CALIFORNIA
on writ of certiorari to the court of appeal
of california for the second appellate district
[February 25, 2014]
delivered the opinion of the Court.
Our cases firmly
establish that police officers may search jointly occupied premises
if one of the occupants[1
consents. See United States v. Matlock, 415 U. S. 164 (1974) .
In Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U. S. 103 (2006) , we recognized a
narrow exception to this rule, holding that the consent of one
occupant is insufficient when another occupant is present and
objects to the search. In this case, we consider whether Randolph
applies if the objecting occupant is absent when another occupant
consents. Our opinion in Randolph took great pains to emphasize
that its holding was limited to situations in which the objecting
occupant is physically present. We therefore refuse to extend
Randolph to the very different situation in this case, where
consent was provided by an abused woman well after her male partner
had been removed from the apartment they shared.
The events involved
in this case occurred in Los Angeles in October 2009. After
observing Abel Lopez cash a check, petitioner Walter Fernandez
approached Lopez and asked about the neighborhood in which he
lived. When Lopez responded that he was from Mexico, Fernandez
laughed and told Lopez that he was in territory ruled by the
“D.F.S.,” i.e., the “Drifters” gang. App.
4–5. Petitioner then pulled out a knife and pointed it at
Lopez’ chest. Lopez raised his hand in self-defense, and
petitioner cut him on the wrist.
Lopez ran from the
scene and called 911 for help, but petitioner whistled, and four
men emerged from a nearby apartment building and attacked Lopez.
After knocking him to the ground, they hit and kicked him and took
his cell phone and his wallet, which contained $400 in cash.
A police dispatch
reported the incident and mentioned the possibility of gang
involvement, and two Los Angeles police officers, Detective Clark
and Officer Cirrito, droveto an alley frequented by members of the
Drifters. A man who appeared scared walked by the officers and
said: “ ‘[T]he guy is in the
apartment.’ ” Id., at 5. The officers then
observed a man run through the alley and into the building to which
the man was pointing. A minute or two later, the officers heard
sounds of screaming and fighting coming from that building.
After backup arrived,
the officers knocked on the door of the apartment unit from which
the screams had been heard. Roxanne Rojas answered the door. She
was holding a baby and appeared to be crying. Her face was red, and
she had a large bump on her nose. The officers also saw blood on
her shirt and hand from what appeared to be a fresh injury. Rojas
told the police that she had been in a fight. Officer Cirrito asked
if anyone else was in the apartment, and Rojas said that her
4-year-old son was the only other person present.
After Officer Cirrito
asked Rojas to step out of the apartment so that he could conduct a
protective sweep, petitioner appeared at the door wearing only
boxer shorts. Apparently agitated, petitioner stepped forward and
said, “ ‘You don’t have any right to come in
here. I know my rights.’ ” Id., at 6. Suspecting
that petitioner had assaulted Rojas, the officers removed him from
the apartmentand then placed him under arrest. Lopez identified
petitioner as his initial attacker, and petitioner was taken to the
police station for booking.
Approximately one hour
after petitioner’s arrest, Detective Clark returned to the
apartment and informed Rojas that petitioner had been arrested.
Detective Clark requested and received both oral and written
consent from Rojas to search the premises.[2
] In the apartment, the police found Drifters gang
paraphernalia, a butterfly knife, clothing worn by the robbery
suspect, and ammunition. Rojas’ young son also showed the
officers where petitioner had hidden a sawed-off shotgun.
charged with robbery, Cal. Penal Code Ann. §211 (West 2008),
infliction of corporal injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or
child’s parent, §273.5(a), possession of a firearm by a
felon, §12021(a)(1)(West 2009), possession of a short-barreled
shotgun, §12020(a)(1), and felony possession of ammunition,
petitioner moved to suppress the evidence found in the apartment,
but after a hearing, the court denied the motion. Petitioner then
pleaded nolo conten-dere to the firearms and ammunition charges. On
the re-maining counts—for robbery and infliction of corporal
injury—he went to trial and was found guilty by a jury. The
court sentenced him to 14 years of imprisonment.
The California Court of
Appeal affirmed. 208 Cal. App. 4th 100, 145 Cal. Rptr. 3d 51
(2012). Because Randolph did not overturn our prior decisions
recognizing that an occupant may give effective consent to search a
shared residence, the court agreed with the majority of the federal
circuits that an objecting occupant’s physical presence is
“indispensible to the decision in Randolph.” Id., at
122, 145 Cal. Rptr. 3d, at 66.[3
] And because petitioner was not present when Rojas
consented, the court held that petitioner’s suppression
motion had been properly denied. Id., at 121, 145 Cal. Rptr. 3d, at
The California Supreme
Court denied the petition for review, and we granted certiorari.
569 U. S. ___ (2013).
The Fourth Amendment
prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and provides that a
warrant may not be issued without probable cause, but “the
text of the Fourth Amendment does not specify when a search warrant
must be obtained.” Kentucky v. King, 563 U. S. ___, ___
(2011) (slip op., at 5). Our cases establish that a warrant is
generally required for a search of a home, Brigham City v. Stuart,
547 U. S. 398, 403 (2006) , but “the ultimate touchstone
of the Fourth Amendment is
‘reasonableness,’ ” ibid.; see also Michigan
v. Fisher, 558 U. S. 45, 47 (2009) ( per curiam). And
certain categories of permissible warrantless searches have long
Consent searches occupy
one of these categories. “Consent searches are part of the
standard investigatorytechniques of law enforcement agencies”
and are “a con-stitutionally permissible and wholly
legitimate aspect of effective police activity.” Schneckloth
v. Bustamonte, 412 U. S. 218 –232 (1973). It would be
unreasonable—indeed, absurd—to require police officers
to obtain a warrant when the sole owner or occupant of a house or
apartment voluntarily consents to a search. The owner of a home has
a right to allow others to enter and examine the premises, and
there is no reason why the owner should not be permitted to extend
this same privilege to police officers if that is the owner’s
choice. Where the owner believes that he or she is under suspicion,
the owner may want the police to search the premises so that their
suspicions are dispelled. This may be particularly important where
the owner has a strong interest in the apprehension of the
perpetrator of a crime and believes that the suspicions of the
police are deflecting the course of their investigation. An owner
may want the police to search even where they lack probable cause,
and if a warrant were always required, this could not be done. And
even where the police could establish probable cause, requiring a
warrant despite the owner’s consent would needlessly
inconvenience everyone involved—not only the officers and the
magistrate but also the occupant of the premises, who would
generally either be compelled or would feel a need to stay until
the search was completed. Michigan v. Summers, 452 U. S. 692,
701 (1981) .[4
While it is clear that
a warrantless search is reasonable when the sole occupant of a
house or apartment consents, what happens when there are two or
more occupants? Must they all consent? Must they all be asked? Is
consent by one occupant enough? The Court faced that problem 40
years ago in United States v. Matlock, 415 U. S. 164 (1974)
In that case, Matlock
and a woman named Graff were living together in a house that was
also occupied by several of Graff’s siblings and by her
mother, who had rentedthe house. While in the front yard of the
house, Matlock was arrested for bank robbery and was placed in a
squad car. Although the police could have easily asked him for
consent to search the room that he and Graff shared, they did not
do so. Instead, they knocked on the door and obtained Graff’s
permission to search. The search yielded incriminating evidence,
which the defendant sought to suppress, but this Court held that
Graff’s consent justified the warrantless search. As the
Court put it, “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.”
Id., at 170.
In Illinois v.
Rodriguez, 497 U. S. 177 (1990) , the Court reaffirmed and
extended the Matlock holding. In Rodriguez, a woman named Fischer
told police officers that she had been assaulted by Rodriguez in
what she termed “ ‘our’ apartment.”
497 U. S., at 179. She also informed the officers that
Rodriguez was asleep in the apartment, and she then accompanied the
officers to that unit. When they arrived, the officers could have
knocked on the door and awakened Rodriguez, and had they done so,
Rodriguez might well have surrendered at the door and objected to
the officers’ entry. Instead, Fischer unlocked the door, the
officers entered without a warrant, and they saw drug paraphernalia
and containers filled with white powder in plain view.
After the search, the
police learned that Fischer no longer resided at the apartment, and
this Court held that she did not have common authority over the
premises at the time in question. The Court nevertheless held that
the warrantless entry was lawful because the police reasonably
believed that Fischer was a resident. Id., at 188–189.
While consent by one
resident of jointly occupied premises is generally sufficient to
justify a warrantless search, we recognized a narrow exception to
this rule in Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U. S. 103 (2006) . In
that case, police offi-cers responded to the Randolphs’ home
after receiving a report of a domestic dispute. When the officers
arrived, Janet Randolph informed the officers that her estranged
husband, Scott Randolph, was a cocaine user and that there were
“items of drug evidence” in the house. Id., at 107
(internal quotation marks omitted). The officers first asked Scott
for consent to search, but he “unequivocally refused.”
Ibid. The officers then turned to Janet, and she consented to the
search, which produced evidence that was later used to convict
Scott for possession of cocaine.
Without questioning the
prior holdings in Matlock and Rodriguez, this Court held that Janet
Randolph’s consent was insufficient under the circumstances
to justify the warrantless search. The Court reiterated the
proposition that a person who shares a residence with others
assumes the risk that “any one of them may admit visitors,
with the consequence that a guest obnoxious to one may nevertheless
be admitted in his absence by another.” 547 U. S., at
111. But the Court held that “a physically present
inhabitant’s express refusal of consent to a police search
[of his home] is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent
of a fellow occupant.” Id., at 122–123 (emphasis
opinion went to great lengths to make clear that its holding was
limited to situations in which the objecting occupant is present.
Again and again, the opinion of the Court stressed this controlling
factor. See id., at 106 (“present at the scene”); ibid.
(“physically present”); id., at 108 (“a co-tenant
who is present”); id., at 109 (“physically
present”); id., at 114 (“a present and objecting
co-tenant”); id., at 119 (a co-tenant “standing at the
door and expressly refusing consent”); id., at 120 (“a
physically present resident”), id., at 121 (“a
physically present fellow tenant objects”); ibid. (“[A]
potential defendant with self-interest in objecting is at the door
and objects”); id., at 122 (“[A] physically present
inhabitant’s express refusal of consent to a police search is
dispositive as to him”). The Court’s opinion could
hardly have been clearer on this point, and the separate opinion
filed by Justice Breyer, whose vote was decisive, was equally
unambiguous. See id., at 126 (concurring) (“The Court’s
opinion does not apply where the objector is not present ‘and
In this case,
petitioner was not present when Rojas consented, but petitioner
still contends that Randolph is controlling. He advances two main
arguments. First, he claims that his absence should not matter
since he was absent only because the police had taken him away.
Second, he maintains that it was sufficient that he objected to the
search while he was still present. Such an objection, he says,
should remain in effect until the objecting party “no longer
wishes to keep the police out of his home.” Brief for
Petitioner 8. Neither of these arguments is sound.
We first consider the
argument that the presence of the objecting occupant is not
necessary when the police are responsible for his absence. In
Randolph, the Court suggested in dictum that consent by one
occupant might not be sufficient if “there is evidence that
the police have removed the potentially objecting tenant from the
entrance for the sake of avoiding a possible objection.” 547
U. S., at 121. We do not believe the statement should be read
to suggest that improper motive may invalidate objectively
justified removal. Hence, it does not govern here.
The Randolph dictum is
best understood not to require an inquiry into the subjective
intent of officers who detain or arrest a potential objector but
instead to refer to situations in which the removal of the
potential objector is not objectively reasonable. As petitioner
acknowledges, see Brief for Petitioner 25, our Fourth Amendment
cases “have repeatedly rejected” a subjective approach.
Brigham City, 547 U. S., at 404 (alteration and internal
quotation marks omitted). “Indeed, we have never held,
outside limited contexts such as an ‘inventory search or
administrative inspection . . . , that an officer’s
motive invalidates objectively justifiable behavior under the
Fourth Amendment.’ ” King, 563 U. S., at ___
(slip op.,at 10).
Petitioner does not
claim that the Randolph Court meant to break from this consistent
practice, and we do not think that it did. And once it is
recognized that the test is one of objective reasonableness,
petitioner’s argument collapses. He does not contest the fact
that the police had reasonable grounds for removing him from the
apartment so that they could speak with Rojas, an apparent victim
of domestic violence, outside of petitioner’s potentially
intimidating presence. In fact, he does not even contest the
existence of probable cause to place him under arrest. We therefore
hold that an occupant who is absent due to a lawful detention or
arrest stands in the same shoes as an occupant who is absent for
any other reason.
This conclusion does
not “make a mockery of Randolph,” as petitioner
protests. Brief for Petitioner 9. It simply accepts Randolph on its
own terms. The Randolph holding unequivocally requires the presence
of the objecting occupant in every situation other than the one
mentioned in the dictum discussed above.
This brings us to
petitioner’s second argument, viz., that his objection, made
at the threshold of the premises that the police wanted to search,
remained effective until he changed his mind and withdrew his
objection. This argument is inconsistent with Randolph’s
reasoning in at least two important ways. First, the argument
cannot be squared with the “widely shared social
expectations” or “customary social usage” upon
which the Randolph holding was based. See 547 U. S., at 111,
121. Explaining why consent by one occupant could not override an
objection by a physically present occupant, the Randolph Court
“[I]t is fair to say that a caller
standing at the door of shared premises would have no confidence
that one occupant’s invitation was a sufficiently good reason
to enter when a fellow tenant stood there saying, ‘stay
out.’ Without some very good reason, no sensible person would
go inside under those conditions.” Id., at 113.
It seems obvious that
the calculus of this hypothetical caller would likely be quite
different if the objecting tenant was not standing at the door.
When the objecting occupant is standing at the threshold saying
“stay out,” a friend or visitor invited to enter by
another occupant can expect at best an uncomfortable scene and at
worst violence if he or she tries to brush past the objector. But
when the objector is not on the scene (and especially when it is
known that the objector will not return during the course of the
visit), the friend or visitor is much more likely to accept the
invitation to enter.[5
petitioner’s argument is inconsistent with Randolph’s
petitioner’s argument would create the very sort of practical
complications that Randolph sought to avoid. The Randolph Court
recognized that it was adopting a “formalis[tic]” rule,
but it did so in the interests of “simple clarity” and
administrability. Id., at 121, 122.
The rule that
petitioner would have us adopt would produce a plethora of
practical problems. For one thing, there is the question of
duration. Petitioner argues that an objection, once made, should
last until it is withdrawn by the objector, but such a rule would
be unreasonable. Suppose that a husband and wife owned a house as
joint tenants and that the husband, after objecting to a search of
the house, was convicted and sentenced to a 15-year prison term.
Under petitioner’s proposed rule, the wife would be unable to
consent to a search of the house 10 years after the date on which
her husband objected. We refuse to stretch Randolph to such strange
Nor are we persuaded to
hold that an objection lasts for a “reasonable” time.
“[I]t is certainly unusual for this Court to set forth
precise time limits governing police action,” Maryland v.
Shatzer, 559 U. S. 98, 110 (2010) , and what interval of time
would be reasonable in this context? A week? A month? A year? Ten
would also require the police and ultimately the courts to
determine whether, after the passage of time, an objector still had
“common authority” over the premises, and this would
often be a tricky question. Suppose that an incarcerated objector
and a consenting co-occupant were joint tenants on a lease. If the
objector, after incarceration, stopped paying rent, would he still
have “common authority,” and would his objection retain
its force? Would it be enough that his name remainedon the lease?
Would the result be different if the object-ing and consenting
lessees had an oral month-to-month tenancy?
concerns the procedure needed to register a continuing objection.
Would it be necessary for an occupant to object while police
officers are at the door? If presence at the time of consent is not
needed, would an occupant have to be present at the premises when
the objection was made? Could an objection be made pre-emptively?
Could a person like Scott Randolph, suspecting that his estranged
wife might invite the police to view his drug stash and
paraphernalia, register an objection in advance? Could this be done
by posting a sign in front of the house? Could a standing objection
be registered by serving notice on the chief of police?
Finally, there is the
question of the particular law enforcement officers who would be
bound by an objection. Would this set include just the officers who
were present when the objection was made? Would it also apply to
other officers working on the same investigation? Would it extend
to officers who were unaware of the objection? How about officers
assigned to different but arguably related cases? Would it be
limited by law enforcement agency?
If Randolph is taken at
its word—that it applies only when the objector is standing
in the door saying “stay out” when officers propose to
make a consent search—all of these problems disappear.
In response to these
arguments, petitioner argues that Randolph’s requirement of
physical presence is not without its own ambiguity. And we
acknowledge that if, as we conclude, Randolph requires presence on
the premises to be searched, there may be cases in which the outer
boundary of the premises is disputed. The Court confronted a
similar problem last Term in Bailey v. United States, 568
U. S. ___ (2013), but despite arguments similar to those now
offered by petitioner, the Court adopted a rule that applies only
when the affected individual is near the premises being searched.
Having held that a premises rule is workable in that context, we
see no ground for reaching a different conclusion here.
strenuously that his expansive interpretation of Randolph would not
hamper law enforcement because in most cases where officers have
probable cause to arrest a physically present objector they also
have probable cause to search the premises that the objector does
not want them to enter, see Brief for Petitioner 20–23, but
this argument misunderstands the constitutional status of consent
searches. A warrantless consent search is reasonable and thus
consistent with the Fourth Amendment irrespective of the
availability of a warrant. Even with modern technological advances,
the warrant procedure imposes burdens on the officers who wish to
search, the magistrate who must review the warrant application, and
the party willing to give consent. Whena warrantless search is
justified, requiring the police to obtain a warrant may
“unjustifiably interfer[e] with legitimate law enforcement
strategies.” King, 563 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 13).
Such a requirement may also impose an unmerited burden on the
person who consents to an immediate search, since the warrant
application procedure entails delay. Putting the exception the
Court adopted in Randolph to one side, the lawful occupant of a
house or apartment should have the right to invite the police to
enter the dwelling and conduct a search. Any other rule would
trample on the rights of the occupant who is willing to consent.
Such an occupant may want the police to search in order to dispel
“suspicion raised by sharing quarters with a criminal.”
547 U. S., at 116; see also Schneckloth, 412 U. S., at
243 (evidence obtained pursuant to a consent search “may
insure that a wholly innocent person is not wrongly charged with a
criminal offense”). And an occupant may want the police to
conduct a thorough search so that any dangerous contraband can be
found and removed. In this case, for example, the search resulted
in the discovery and removal of a sawed-off shotgun to which
Rojas’ 4-year-old son had access.
Denying someone in
Rojas’ position the right to allow the police to enter her
home would also show disrespect for her independence. Having beaten
Rojas, petitioner would bar her from controlling access to her own
home until such time as he chose to relent. The Fourth Amendment
does not give him that power.
* * *
The judgment of the
California Court of Appeal isaffirmed.
It is so ordered.