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Supreme Court expands exception to search warrant law

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Virginia citizens from warrantless searches of their homes by the police. As with many laws that limit police power, there are several exceptions to the search warrant requirement.

One such exception holds that police may enter and search a residence if the residents give them permission. The U.S. Supreme Court may have just expanded the expanded the scope of this exception with a recent ruling. The Court held that one resident’s refusal to let the police in can be invalidated by another resident’s permission -- after the first resident has been arrested and is not present to object.

Officers in Los Angeles came to the home of a man in 2009. The man was a suspect in a street robbery, and officers wanted to search his apartment. When his girlfriend answered the door, he yelled that he did not give the officers permission to search.

The officers arrested the suspect and removed him from the apartment. They returned an hour later, and the girlfriend allegedly gave them permission to search the place. The search turned up “gang-related material,” to quote the Washington Post, and a shotgun.

In court, the defendant objected that the warrantless search violated his Fourth Amendment rights, because he had not consented, and no other exception to the search warrant requirement applied.

The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in 6-3 in favor of the police. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito expressed frustration with the “burdens on the officers” that come with the search warrant requirement. He said that allowing one resident to consent despite the refusal of another respects that resident’s “independence.” Therefore, an objecting resident has to be “physically present” to cancel out another resident’s invitation, the majority concluded.

Three justices dissented. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the decision gives the police an opportunity to “dodge” the warrant rule. She noted that the ruling weakens as 2006 decision on the same issue. That time, the Court did not require physical presence for the objection to stand.

One could imagine that police could use this new rule to simply arrest an objecting homeowner, simply to remove him or her from the premises. From there, it would only be a matter of getting another resident to consent to the search to avoid having to convince a judge that probable cause existed to make a search legal.

This may complicate a criminal defense effort, but suspects in Virginia still have rights. A defense attorney can help defend them against criminal charges.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court sides with LAPD in warrantless house search,” David G. Savage, Feb. 25, 2014

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