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Fernandez v. California, 571 U.S. 292 (2014)

certiorari to the court of appeal of california, second appellate district

No. 12–7822. Argued November 13, 2013—Decided February 25, 2014

Police officers observed a suspect in a violent robbery run into an apartment building, and heard screams coming from one of the apartments. They knocked on the apartment door, which was answered by Roxanne Rojas, who appeared to be battered and bleeding. When the officers asked her to step out of the apartment so that they could conduct a protective sweep, petitioner came to the door and objected. Suspecting that he had assaulted Rojas, the officers removed petitioner from the apartment and placed him under arrest. He was then identified as the perpetrator in the earlier robbery and taken to the police station. An officer later returned to the apartment and, after obtaining Rojas’ oral and written consent, searched the premises, where he found several items linking petitioner to the robbery. The trial court denied petitioner’s motion to suppress that evidence, and he was convicted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed. It held that because petitioner was not present when Rojas consented to the search, the exception to permissible warrantless consent searches of jointly occupied premises that arises when one of the occupants present objects to the search, Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103, did not apply, and therefore, petitioner’s suppression motion had been properly denied.

HeldRandolph does not extend to this situation, where Rojas’ consent was provided well after petitioner had been removed from their apartment. Pp. 5–15.

(a) Consent searches are permissible warrantless searches, Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 228, 231–232, and are clearly reasonable when the consent comes from the sole occupant of the premises. When multiple occupants are involved, the rule extends to the search of the premises or effects of an absent, nonconsenting occupant so long as “the consent of one who possesses common authority over [the] premises or effects” is obtained.  United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 170. However, when “a physically present inhabitan[t]” refuses to consent, that refusal “is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant.”  Randolph, 547 U. S., at 122–123. A controlling factor in Randolph was the objecting occupant’s physical presence. See, e.g., id., at 106, 108, 109, 114. Pp. 5–9.

(b) Petitioner contends that, though he was not present when Rojas consented, Randolph nevertheless controls, but neither of his arguments is sound. Pp. 9–14.

(1) He first argues that his absence should not matter since it occurred only because the police had taken him away. Dictum in Randolph suggesting 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, is best understood to refer to situations in which the removal of the potential objector is not objectively reasonable. Petitioner does not contest the fact that the police had reasonable grounds for his removal or the existence of probable cause for his arrest. He was thus in the same position as an occupant absent for any other reason. Pp. 9–10.

(2) Petitioner also argues that the objection he made while at the threshold remained effective until he changed his mind and withdrew it. This is inconsistent with Randolph in at least two important ways. It cannot be squared with the “widely shared social expectations” or “customary social usage” upon which Randolph’s holding was based. 547 U. S., at 111, 121. It also creates the sort of practical complications that Randolph sought to avoid by adopting a “formalis[tic]” rule, id., at 121, e.g., requiring that the scope of an objection’s duration and the procedures necessary to register a continuing objection be defined. Pp. 10–14.

(c) Petitioner claims 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 obtain a warrant to search the premises that the objector does not want them to enter. But he misunderstands the constitutional status of consent searches, which are permissible irrespective of the availability of a warrant. Requiring officers to obtain a warrant when a warrantless search is justified may interfere with law enforcement strategies and impose an unmerited burden on the person willing to consent to an immediate search. Pp. 14–15.

208 Cal. App. 4th 100, 145 Cal. Rptr. 3d 51, affirmed.

Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., and Thomas, J., filed concurring opinions. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Sotomayor and Kagan, JJ., joined.