Court extends warrantless searches in controversial case

In a controversial ruling this week, the United States Supreme Court decided that a warrantless search of a home is lawful even over the objections of the suspect if another lawful occupant later consents and the objecting party is no longer present.

This case has a complicated set of facts but the details are important to understanding how the ruling can impact Florida suspects. Police were investigating a robbery and assault case in a nearby home when they were told by the victim that the man who committed the crime was in a nearby apartment building. Police approached the building and heard screaming coming from one of the units so they approached it and knocked on the door. A woman with visible injuries answered the door and police asked to enter the home. A man then appeared and told police that they were not allowed to enter. Police arrested the man on suspicion of domestic violence and took him to the police station, returning to the home later and getting permission from the woman to enter and search.

Typically police would need to first obtain a warrant in order to conduct a search of a home over the objections of an occupant, since the home is the place with the highest level of privacy protections under the Fourth Amendment. Previous cases have indicated that a warrant is required when one occupant of a home objects to a search, but the court decided not to extend that requirement to this set of facts, saying that because the objecting party was no longer present, police were right in obtaining consent from the person who was actually there.

This case is controversial because there is little to suggest that police would have been unable to obtain a warrant or that there was a mitigating circumstance that required them to proceed without one. In order to obtain a warrant to search a home, police would have to show a judge that they had probable cause obtained through concrete evidence. Probable cause is also required for warrantless searches, so the only missing piece here is presenting that to a judge before returning to the home.

The case is controversial because this could provide police with an incentive to immediately arrest defendants and then return to conduct a search as a way around the warrant requirement.

Source: ABA Journal, "Cops may search home when suspect objects but girlfriend later consents, Supreme Court says," Debra Cassens Weiss, Feb. 25, 2014.

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