certiorari to the supreme court of georgia
No. 04–1067. Argued November 8, 2005—Decided March 22, 2006
Respondent’s estranged wife gave police permission to search the marital residence for items of drug use after respondent, who was also present, had unequivocally refused to give consent. Respondent was indicted for possession of cocaine, and the trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence as products of a warrantless search unauthorized by consent. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed. In affirming, the State Supreme Court held that consent given by one occupant is not valid in the face of the refusal of another physically present occupant, and distinguished United States v. Matlock, 415 U. S. 164, which recognized the permissibility of an entry made with the consent of one co-occupant in the other’s absence.
Held: In the circumstances here at issue, a physically present co-occupant’s stated refusal to permit entry renders warrantless entry and search unreasonable and invalid as to him. Pp. 4–19.
(a) The Fourth Amendment recognizes a valid warrantless entry and search of a premises when the police obtain the voluntary consent of an occupant who shares, or is reasonably believed to share, common authority over the property, and no present co-tenant objects. Matlock, supra, at 170; Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U. S. 177, 186. The constant element in assessing Fourth Amendment reasonableness in such cases is the great significance given to widely shared social expectations, which are influenced by property law but not controlled by its rules. Thus, Matlock not only holds that a solitary co-inhabitant may sometimes consent to a search of shared premises, but also stands for the proposition that the reasonableness of such a search is in significant part a function of commonly held understandings about the authority that co-inhabitants may exercise in ways that affect each other’s interests. Pp. 4–6.
(b) Matlock’s example of common understanding is readily apparent. The assumption tenants usually make about their common authority when they share quarters is that any one of them may admit visitors, with the consequence that a guest obnoxious to one may be admitted in his absence. Matlock placed no burden on the police to eliminate the possibility of atypical arrangements, absent reason to doubt that the regular scheme was in place. Pp. 6–8.
(c) This Court took a step toward addressing the issue here when it held in Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U. S. 91, that overnight houseguests have a legitimate expectation of privacy in their temporary quarters. If that customary expectation is a foundation of a houseguest’s Fourth Amendment rights, it should follow that an inhabitant of shared premises may claim at least as much. In fact, a co-inhabitant naturally has an even stronger claim. No sensible person would enter shared premises based on one occupant’s invitation when a fellow tenant said to stay out. Such reticence would show not timidity but a realization that when people living together disagree over the use of their common quarters, a resolution must come through voluntary accommodation, not by appeals to authority. Absent some recognized hierarchy, e.g., parent and child, there is no societal or legal understanding of superior and inferior as between co-tenants. Pp. 8–10.
(d) Thus, a disputed invitation, without more, gives an officer no better claim to reasonableness in entering than the officer would have absent any consent. Disputed permission is no match for the Fourth Amendment central value of “respect for the privacy of the home,” Wilson v. Layne, 526 U. S. 603, 610, and the State’s other countervailing claims do not add up to outweigh it.
A co-tenant who has an interest in bringing criminal activity to light or in deflecting suspicion from himself can, e.g., tell the police what he knows, for use before a magistrate in getting a warrant. This case, which recognizes limits on evidentiary searches, has no bearing on the capacity of the police, at the invitation of one tenant, to enter a dwelling over another tenant’s objection in order to protect a resident from domestic violence. Though alternatives to disputed consent will not always open the door to search for evidence that the police suspect is inside, nothing in social custom or its reflection in private law argues for placing a higher value on delving into private premises to search for evidence in the face of disputed consent, than on requiring clear justification before the government searches private living quarters over a resident’s objection. Pp. 10–16.
(e) There are two loose ends. First, while Matlock’s explanation for the constitutional sufficiency of a co-tenant’s consent to enter and search recognized a co-inhabitant’s “right to permit the inspection in his own right,” 415 U. S., at 171, n. 7, the right to admit the police is not a right as understood under property law. It is, instead, the authority recognized by customary social usage as having a substantial bearing on Fourth Amendment reasonableness in specific circumstances. The question here is whether customary social understanding accords the consenting tenant authority to prevail over the co-tenant’s objection, a question Matlock did not answer. Second, a fine line must be drawn to avoid undercutting Matlock—where the defendant, though not present, was in a squad car not far away—and Rodriguez—where the defendant was asleep in the apartment and could have been roused by a knock on the door; if a potential defendant with self-interest in objecting is in fact at the door and objects, the co-tenant’s permission does not suffice for a reasonable search, whereas the potential objector, nearby but not part of the threshold colloquy, loses out. Such formalism is justified. So long as there is no evidence that the police have removed the potentially objecting tenant from the entrance specifically to avoid a possible objection, there is practical value in the simple clarity of complementary rules, one recognizing the co-tenant’s permission when no fellow occupant is on hand, the other according dispositive weight to the fellow occupant’s expressed contrary indication. Pp. 16–18.
(f) Here, respondent’s refusal is clear, and nothing in the record justifies the search on grounds independent of his wife’s consent. Pp. 18–19.
278 Ga. 614, 604 S. E. 2d 835, affirmed.
Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., and Breyer, J., filed concurring opinions. Roberts, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined. Scalia, J., and Thomas, J., filed dissenting opinions. Alito, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.