Thursday, March 23, 2006

Court: No police search if one resident says 'yes,' other 'no'

Court: No police search if one resident says 'yes,' other 'no'
By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police may not enter a home to conduct a search if one resident gives permission but the other says no.

The 5-3 decision in a Georgia drug case that involved a feuding husband and wife drew a sharp dissent from Chief Justice John Roberts. He said the majority, led by the high court's more liberal justices, misapplied the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and set a rule based on "random" circumstances.

The ruling, written by Justice David Souter, says that if police search a home after being invited in byone resident over the protest ofanother, the evidence that is seized cannot be used in court. Thedecision emphasized respect for privacy in the home.

The ruling ensures that a straw coated with what police said appeared to be cocaine that was found in a bedroom at the home of Scott Fitz Randolph cannot be used in any prosecution of him. During a domestic dispute, Randolph's wife, Janet, had called police to their house in Americus. After telling the officer that her husband used drugs, she led the officer to the straw. Scott Randolph had refused an officer's request to allow a search.

Souter referred to social custom and property law that gives spouses and co-tenants equal claim on who enters a person's property. He said no guest would enter at one occupant's invitation if another occupant told the guest to stay out — and police, absent a search warrant, should not either.

"There is no common understanding that one co-tenant generally has a right or authority to prevail over the express wishes of another," Souter wrote, "whether the issue is the color of the curtains or invitations to outsiders."

The ruling was narrowly crafted to affect only situations in which the objecting tenant is present and there isno evidence of abuse or other circumstances that would justify an immediate entry by police entry. However, the decision reverses a pattern among lower U.S. courts that had favored police if one resident allowed the search over the objections of another.

Wednesday's decision affirmed a ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court that favored Scott Randolph. The ruling had blocked his trial on cocaine possession charges from going forward.

Souter was joined by the court's three other more liberal justices, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, and by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate conservative at the court's ideological center. Dissenting with Roberts were fellow conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. New Justice Samuel Alito was not on the court when the case was argued, so he did not take part in the ruling.

In his dissent, Roberts said people who share a home have a reduced expectation of privacy and assume the risk that another resident might agree to a search by police. He said the ruling could endanger spouses who are abused and want police to come in a home, but do not make clear to police that a threat exists.

Thomas dissented separately, saying the action at the Randolph house should not be considered a police search because the wife led the officer to the evidence.

Thomas Goldstein, who represented Randolph, praised the decision as an affirmation of the Fourth Amendment's privacy protection. Russ Willard, spokesman for the Georgia attorney general's office, called the ruling a "roadblock" to law enforcement and said it could diminish officers' ability to investigate domestic disputes.

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