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Supreme Court puts constraints on house searches with co-tenants

WASHINGTON—Recognizing that a man's home is, indeed, his castle, the Supreme Court said Wednesday that police can't search a house without a warrant if one occupant invites them in but another objects to their presence.

Writing for a sharply divided court, Justice David Souter said the ruling's logic was drawn from common social courtesies. The vote in the case was 5-3; Justice Samuel Alito, who wasn't on the court when the case was argued, didn't vote.

"There is no common understanding that one co-tenant generally has a right or authority to prevail over the express wishes of another, whether the issue is the color of the curtains or invitations to outsiders," Souter wrote. Under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, police who come knocking without a warrant can't bypass consent any more easily than a salesman or other guest could, he said. Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Souter in the majority.

The ruling could have wide-ranging implications for authorities, who regularly confront the question of how and when someone has sufficiently waived his or her privacy rights to justify a search.

The ruling also inspired the first written dissent from Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

Roberts accused the court of falsely reading a social assumption into the Constitution—"that an invited guest who arrives at the door of a shared residence, and is greeted by a disagreeable co-occupant shouting `stay out,' would simply go away."

Roberts said that different social situations could produce different outcomes.

"Such shifting expectations are not a promising foundation on which to ground a constitutional rule," Roberts wrote. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented.

Roberts also disagreed with another of the court's assumptions: that a person who chooses to live with someone else has the same expectations of privacy as a person who chooses to live alone.

"Even in our most private relationships, our observable actions and possessions are private at the discretion of those around us," Roberts wrote. Someone who lives with others "assume the risk that those who have access to and control over his shared property might consent to a search."

The case arose from a domestic dispute involving spouses Scott and Janet Randolph in Americus, Ga. When police showed to resolve things, Janet Randolph told them that her husband had drugs in their home and agreed to let the officers inside to look for evidence.

Scott Randolph objected, but the police went ahead on Janet Randolph's word; she led them to drug paraphernalia in the couple's bedroom.

Scott Randolph later tried to have the evidence tossed out because he said the search was illegal. A lower court agreed with him and the justices were asked to decide the matter finally.

The court had never directly confronted the issue of two people, both present at a home, giving different answers to a request for a search.

Souter noted that the court has long decided whether warrantless searches are "reasonable" by looking to the expectations that people would have in normal social situations.

The court also has ruled before that if only one occupant is present when police ask to search, that person's consent is sufficient, even if other occupants who weren't present later object to the search.

In the Randolph case, however, Souter said the social expectations were clear.

"A caller standing at the door of shared premises would have no confidence that one occupant's invitation was a sufficiently good reason to enter when a fellow tenant stood there saying, `Stay out,'" Souter wrote. "Without some very good reason, no sensible person would go inside under those conditions."

Souter made clear, though, that the court was drawing a fine line: A co-occupant's objection is relevant only if the person is at the door, voicing his or her wishes to the police. Someone who's not on the premises, or even asleep in a bedroom, "loses out," Souter said.

That thinking was the focus of Roberts' dissent.

"That the rule is so random in its application confirms that it bears no real relation to the privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment," Roberts wrote. "What the majority's rule protects is not so much privacy as the good luck of a co-owner who just happens to be present at the door when the police arrive."

Roberts also said that the court's ruling would have undesirable effects on victims of domestic violence.

"The majority's rule apparently forbids police from entering to assist with a domestic dispute if the abuser whose behavior prompted the request for police assistance objects," he said, echoing concerns that Breyer had raised during oral arguments.

Breyer, however, sided with the court majority and wrote separately to address the questions about domestic violence.

Breyer said police responding to instances of domestic abuse are often dealing with "emergency" situations in which normal search rules wouldn't apply.

Other justices also weighed in.

Stevens wrote a concurrence using the case to point out what he saw as a flaw in Scalia's preferred method of resolving cases, which is to divine the "original" meaning of constitutional provisions.

The Randolph case, Stevens said, could be resolved only by looking at "evolving" social standards. Only in modern times have women been recognized as equal partners in households, Stevens said. When the Fourth Amendment was written, "only the consent of the husband would matter" because women had lesser rights.

Scalia wrote to respond specifically to Stevens' charge. What had changed, he noted, were laws governing property rights, not the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Stevens had confused the "original import of the Fourth Amendment with the background sources of law to which the Amendment, on its original meaning, referred."

Thomas also dissented, saying the circumstances in Randolph's case weren't a search at all, but an instance of a spouse of a suspected criminal leading police to potential evidence and as such were beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment's protection against illegal searches.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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