Walter Fernandez objected to a police search of his home. His
girlfriend, after his arrest, did not. US Supreme Court rules the search
was constitutional. Three dissenting justices say it diminishes Fourth
The US Supreme Court
on Tuesday made it significantly easier for police to conduct a
warrantless search of a home when one of two occupants objects to a
police search but the other does not.
The 6-to-3 decision came in a case from Los Angeles
involving a suspect who loudly informed police at his front door that
they were not welcome in his home.
“You don’t have any right to come in here,” Walter Fernandez told the police. “I know my rights.”
The officers were initially responding to a report of a
gang-related robbery nearby, which they suspected may have been carried
out by Mr. Fernandez.
By the time Fernandez told police
to stay out, they were already interviewing his girlfriend, who also
lived in the apartment. The girlfriend looked to police as if she had
just been beaten up.
Based in part on evidence of
possible domestic abuse, the officers placed Fernandez under arrest and
drove him to the police station.
About an hour later, the
officers returned to the apartment and asked the girlfriend for
permission to search the home. She was reluctant, but eventually agreed.
the search, the police found gang-related paraphernalia, a knife,
clothing worn by the suspected robber, and a sawed-off shotgun.
Fernandez was charged with robbery, domestic abuse, and possession of guns and ammunition by a convicted felon.
his trial, Fernandez’s lawyer sought to suppress the evidence obtained
during the search of the apartment. The lawyer argued that police needed
to obtain a court-authorized warrant before entering his home and
seizing evidence, since Fernandez had refused to consent to a
The question in the case, Fernandez v. California
(12-7822), was whether the girlfriend’s agreement to allow the police to search the apartment overcame Fernandez’s Fourth Amendment right
to be free from such police intrusions without a warrant.
majority justices ruled that because Fernandez had been lawfully
arrested by police and taken to the police station for booking, his
girlfriend’s subsequent agreement to allow a search superseded his
“We … 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,” Justice Samuel Alito
wrote in the majority opinion.
The decision significantly
narrows a 2006 high court decision in which the justices ruled that
police could not search a residence when one of the two occupants
objects to such a search. In that case, the suspect was refusing to
allow police to conduct a search of the residence, while another
occupant consented to such a search. The Supreme Court said that police
had to honor the wishes of the objecting party when the objector was
physically present at the location to be searched.
Fernandez case, he, too, was physically present at the location to be
searched, at least until he was arrested and taken away. Once he was no
longer physically present, police then approached his girlfriend for
permission to search.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg said police should be required to honor Fernandez’s
objection. The dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor
and Elena Kagan
added that it would not have hindered the police investigation because
police already had probable cause to justify a search warrant to a
She warned that the high court decision might send
a dangerous message to law enforcement officials. “Instead of adhering
to the warrant requirement, today’s decision tells the police they may
dodge it, never mind [that there was] ample time to secure the approval
of a neutral magistrate,” Justice Ginsburg
She said the decision amounted to a “drastic reduction” of Fourth Amendment protections.
the police have probable cause and could obtain a warrant with
dispatch, if they can gain the consent of someone other than the
suspect, why should the law insist on the formality of a warrant,”
Ginsburg asked. She answered her own question: “Because the Framers saw
the neutral magistrate as an essential part of the criminal process
shielding all of us, good or bad, saint or sinner, from unchecked police
In his majority opinion, Justice Alito
said a high court decision recognizing Fernandez’s earlier objection to the search would raise a number of practical problems.
How long would such an objection remain binding, Alito asked. A week? A month? A year? Ten years?
said the better approach was to embrace a narrow reading of the 2006
decision. Such a narrow approach requires a suspect to be physically
present and objecting to prevent another occupant of the same residence
from granting the police authorization to conduct a warrantless search.
Alito also rejected the suggestion that police could have quickly and easily obtained a warrant from a judge or magistrate.
“This argument misunderstands the constitutional status of consent searches,” Alito wrote.
warrantless consent search is reasonable and thus consistent with the
Fourth Amendment irrespective of the availability of a warrant,” he
said. “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
When a warrantless search is justified, he
added, obtaining a warrant anyway may unjustifiably interfere with
legitimate law enforcement strategies, Alito said.
went on to say that, under the circumstances of the Fernandez case, the
physically abused girlfriend enjoyed her own independent right to invite
the police to search the residence.
“Having beaten [his
girlfriend], petitioner would bar her from controlling access to her own
home until such time as he chose to relent,” Alito said. “The Fourth
Amendment does not give him that power.”
dissent, the three women on the court – Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan –
rejected the majority’s references to domestic abuse as a justification
for its decision.
“If a person’s health and safety are
threatened by a domestic abuser, exigent circumstances would justify
immediate removal of the abuser from the premises, as happened here,”
“Domestic abuse is indeed a serious problem in the United States
she wrote. But “the specter of domestic abuse hardly necessitates the
diminution of the Fourth Amendment rights at stake here,” she added.
was tried and convicted on the robbery and domestic abuse charges. He
pleaded no contest to the firearms charges. He is currently serving a
14-year term in California state prison.
Labels: U. S. Supreme Court