WASHINGTON—The love lost between Scott and Janet Randolph worked to the advantage of the cops in the summer of 2001, when authorities investigating a domestic dispute between the two asked to search the couple's Georgia home.
Scott Randolph said no. His embittered wife said yes, and police went ahead with her consent. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court weighed whether the subsequent search—in which Janet Randolph led them to drugs that resulted in her husband's arrest—was unconstitutional.
The case is the latest in a long line of opportunities for the court to refine the scope of permissible searches under the Fourth Amendment. But the question involved—How much privacy can anyone expect in a home they share with someone else?—inspired a surprisingly animated debate among the justices.
Even Clarence Thomas, usually silent during oral arguments, jumped into the fray. Thomas not only asked a question, but also engaged in a lively back-and-forth with a lawyer, saying that rules of criminal procedure shouldn't prevent Janet Randolph from leading police to evidence of a crime.
"That would be unreasonable," he said.
Scott Randolph's position is straightforward: A man's home is his castle, and if he wants to deny entry, even the police ought to respect that. Even a spouse—a partner with equal say over the home—shouldn't trump an individual's right to say "no" when the police come knocking without a warrant.
He concedes that the search would have been fine if he hadn't been there and police had gotten his wife's consent. And he concedes that if he'd been at home asleep or away from the door when police asked to enter, his wife legally could have granted them permission to search.
But Randolph has a "reasonable expectation of privacy" with regard to his own wishes about who comes into his home, lawyer Thomas Goldstein told the justices. Police shouldn't be able to breach that privacy over his express wishes.
"We aren't saying the police should go away" under those circumstances, Goldstein said, noting that they probably could have obtained a warrant to search the house. "We just want a balance."
The Georgia Supreme Court sided with Randolph, throwing out the drug evidence that was recovered during the search.
Randolph's position seemed to draw support from several justices during the argument, especially Sandra Day O'Connor, who emphasized that the court doesn't decide search cases by acknowledging shared property rights, but by determining what's socially acceptable.
"Is it the norm to let a stranger in against the express wishes of a spouse?" she asked Georgia Deputy Attorney General Paula K. Smith. "We have to look at social policy and the rights of privacy."
O'Connor, who's in her waning days on the court, may not stay long enough to vote on the case. If Samuel Alito were to be confirmed to replace her in January, she probably would leave before the justices finish deliberating the case.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy also criticized Georgia's position, with Kennedy pointing out that police already can act without consent under urgent circumstances.
"Outside of that context, I see no purpose for your rule," Kennedy told Smith.
Randolph's position also ran into harsh criticism from several justices, though. Chief Justice John G. Roberts suggested that when you decide to live with someone, you give up some rights to privacy.
"That's reasonable, that you compromise some of that privacy by living with someone else, isn't it?" Roberts asked. He tried to explore the limits of Randolph's logic. Could one person in a dorm room of four prevent police from searching? Could one person in a house of 10 occupants?
Justice Stephen Breyer said his objection to Randolph's position could be summed up in two words: "spousal abuse."
He asked what should happen when police come to investigate a domestic dispute and a husband tries to prevent their entry.
"I'm thinking of the ambiguity that comes up in these cases," Breyer said.
Randolph's lawyer, Goldstein, said a spousal abuse investigation wasn't a search. "Preventing these searches wouldn't stop police from talking to a wife about potential abuse in a place where she felt secure," he said.
Georgia is backed by the Bush administration, whose lawyer asked the justices to recognize Janet Randolph's interests in the case.
"She has an independent interest in cooperating with law enforcement, and in dissociating herself from criminal interests," Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben said. "You have to balance the individual right to privacy against the social interests of cooperating with law enforcement."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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