Home > Political Ranting > Georgia, Petitioner v. Scott Fitz Randolph

Georgia, Petitioner v. Scott Fitz Randolph

March 23rd, 2006

Wow. Interesting case (PDF file). The Supreme Court ruled on a case out of Georgia concerning Fourth Amendment rights. The question: if one occupant of a house refuses to allow a warrantless search of a residence, can another occupant allow it?

In this case, it was a husband and wife with a child. They separated more than a month before the incident, and child custody was an issue. When the wife left originally, she took their son with her to Canada. When she returned (the reason not being apparent), the husband took the child to a friend’s house, fearing his estranged wife would again remove him from the country, making it far more difficult for him to win custody. An argument ensued, and the wife called the police. When the police arrived, the wife claimed the husband was a drug user, that there was evidence in his bedroom, and invited the police in to search. The husband refused the search and claimed his wife was the drug user. The police entered on the wife’s consent over the husband’s objection, found evidence of drug use, and arrested the husband.

Interesting issues abound. Precedent allows a search if an objecting party is not present to object. If the husband were still at the friend’s house when the wife invited police in, the search would have been legal; in that respect, the presence of the objecting party might seem more of a technicality than a principle. One commenter on the topic points out that an abusive husband could refuse a search when a battered wife wants police to see evidence of child abuse; another points out that if police believe there is a threat to one of the occupants, that overrules the objections and police could enter. In the case in question, the wife was estranged and not a current occupant of the household, instead visiting from another country. Did she hold common title to the house? This was a case involving child custody, which can get incredibly messy; what if she was trying to falsely incriminate the husband to gain an advantage for custody?

Souter wrote the majority opinion, which ruled in favor of the defendant–police may not search without a warrant if one occupant objects, even if another occupant does not. In the minority, as expected, was John Roberts, who wrote the dissent (PDF file), joined by Scalia. Alito did not participate, having joined the court too late.

What is interesting here is that Kennedy joined the liberal side of the court, with Roberts showing his conservative stripes in joining Scalia and Thomas on the other side. Is it possible that Kennedy could be turning to the left as a counterbalance to Alito and Roberts joining the court? Kennedy has in the past been less on the spot because O’Connor was clearly the swing vote. But now Kennedy, who stands between the two sides, is the man in the middle, and bears greater responsibility in cases which could swing either way. With Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito forming a solid right-wing clique, will Kennedy be comfortable joining them now that O’Connor is not there to take the bullet?

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  1. Paul
    March 23rd, 2006 at 17:00 | #1

    This *is* an interesting case. I didn’t really realize the extent of the law in regards to an absent inhabitant if one who is present says “sure, search the joint”.

    The cops are in a tough spot here- they’ve got a witness giving them evidence of a crime, at least enough that if they went to *get* a warrant, they probably would be able to attain one and then go in and search, they’ve got someone who lives there giving them permission to search…

    But in the end, I agree with the decision. The Fourth Amendment is something that despite King George’s warrantless wiretapping is still very important, and if you’ve got the resident right there asserting his Fourth Amendment rights, I have to think that takes precedence over someone else trying to give those rights up *for you*.

    If you’re not there, well, then the cops don’t have a situation of one person trying to give up those rights *over the objection* of the person in legal jeopardy; they only have one person, a resident, saying “come on in and search”.

    So from that point of view, the decision makes some sense. If you just look at it in the “if the guy had happened to be in there sleeping it would be a legal search” point of view, it doesn’t appear to make much sense, but the fact is that there *is* a difference between someone asserting their rights and the lack of that going on.

    Not that our rights are something we should have to assert to still have, but because the cops are put into a tough spot and have to make decisions based on the information they have available to them.

    Does this make sense? I’m tired, just got home from work. :)

    Seattle, WA

  2. Luis
    March 23rd, 2006 at 18:17 | #2

    Yes, it does make sense; I agree. Another way of looking at it: Roberts wrote his dissent as if the homeowner being present was a loophole, when actually the person not being there presents the loophole.

    If everyone who lives in the house, present or not, must be consulted before a search can be made, that would be an undue burden on the police. Yes, getting permission from a second party without the target of the search present could be used unfairly, like waiting for the guy to leave so you don’t have to ask him, because you’ll have a better chance with someone else. Nevertheless, THAT is the loophole, not the person actually being there and objecting over a second party.

    I have to wonder if a search would be legal if the person was in the house but not in the room, and a search was allowed by a second party. Same for sleeping–is the idea, “you snooze, you lose,” though this time you lose your 4th amendment rights?

    Someone made an interesting point: that the right wing of the court is arguing to let the government search your house, while conservatives claim to be against government snooping on you or interfering with your privacy. Seems like they’ve given up on that principle, at least wherever security of any sort is concerned (not to mention, when they believe it will mostly be applied to others).

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