©2011 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)

United States v. Matlock
Illinois v. Rodriguez
Georgia v. Randolph
Wisconsin v. St. Martin

The United States Supreme Court has, over the years, addressed the issue of third party consent. Some notable cases from that court that are often cited are the United States v. Matlock [i], Illinois v. Rodriguez [ii]and Georgia v. Randolph[iii].  In review, we will examine each of the above cases.

First, in the United States v. Matlock, Matlock was arrested in front of the home in which he rented a room.   The officers then arrested Matlock and transported him away from the residence. Officers still at the residence made contact with Ms. Graff at the home.  She stated that she and Matlock shared a bedroom in the home.  The police requested and were granted consent to search the home for money and a gun.  During the consent search, the police found the items in Matlock’s bedroom.  The issue that the Supreme Court faced was whether Ms. Graff had authority to consent to a search of the room that she shared with Matlock.  The Court held that Ms. Graff possessed common authority over the room with Matlock.  As such, she did have the authority to consent to a search of the room.  This common authority rests upon mutual use of the property and joint access to the location or item searched.

Next, in Illinois v. Rodriguez, a woman told the police that Rodriguez had beaten her, and he was in “our” apartment.  She also said that she had clothes and furniture at the apartment.  Officers met with the woman and went with her to Rodriguez’s apartment without an arrest warrant or a search warrant.  The woman opened the door with a key and gave the officers consent to enter.  Upon entry, the officers observed drugs in plain view.  During this entry, Rodriguez was asleep in the apartment.  After seeing the drugs, the officers realized that the woman did not live at the apartment, but had moved out weeks prior.  The issue before the court was whether consent from a third party was reasonable if a person appeared to have the authority to consent, but actually does not have authority.  The Court held that consent will be valid if the police reasonably believe the consenter has authority, even if the person does not actually have authority.  This is called “apparent authority.”  Therefore, officers do not always have to be correct, but they do have to act upon a reasonable belief, based upon the circumstances before them.

Lastly, in Georgia v. Randolphthe Supreme Court dealt with the issue of authority to consent when two people, both having joint access and authority over the property that is the subject of the consent, are present, and one person consents to a search and the other refuses consent.   In this case, Mr. and Mrs. Randolph were having a domestic dispute, and the police were called.  Mrs. Randolph told the police that Mr. Randolph was a cocaine user.  The police asked for consent to search the house, and Mr. Randolph refused consent.  However, Mrs. Randolph readily consented to a search of the house and led the police to Mr. Randolph’s bedroom where a straw with cocaine residue was found.  The police used this as probable cause to obtain a search warrant and additional cocaine was found.  The issue before the Court was whether the consent of a person with joint access and authority can give consent over the present co-occupant’s objection.  The court held that a physically present co-occupant’s stated refusal to consent to a search renders a warrantless search unreasonable and invalid as to him.  Therefore, if two people, both of which have common authority over the premises, are present and, one party refuses consent, that refusal renders any subsequent consent search invalid against the “refusing” party.  The Court, however, explicitly stated that they were not overruling Matlock and Rodriguez.

On June 22, 2011, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin decided Wisconsin v. St. Martin [iv], which involved facts similar to both Matlock and Randolph.  As such, the Wisconsin court had to decide the issue of whether a resident who is seated in a nearby police vehicle is “physically present” such that his express refusal to consent would bar a warrantless search in spite of the consent given by a co-tenant. [v] 

The facts of St. Martin, taken directly from the case are as follows:

St. Martin’s girlfriend, Latoya M. (Latoya), arrived at the police department at 11:30 p.m. on June 8, 2006, and asked to speak to an officer. She told the officer she had been battered by St. Martin, with whom she shared an apartment. She described being hit in the face and head and having her head slammed down on the headboard of the bed, and said that when St. Martin allowed her to leave the apartment, she had come directly to the police. While she was at the station, she also told police she suspected that St. Martin was selling cocaine. Specifically, she mentioned that about six days earlier, she had walked into the bathroom and had seen him with what looked like cocaine in a plastic sandwich bag. She said that before that occurred, St. Martin had asked her if she had taken something of his, which she denied; she said he had eventually told her he had found the lost item and that it was a “kilo.” She also said she suspected he hid cocaine in their apartment’s attic because she had seen him go up there.

Latoya showed officers a driver’s license that gave an address that matched the apartment address, and she agreed to go back to the apartment with the police. When they arrived at the apartment, they knocked and got no answer. Latoya used her key to let police into St. Martin’s residence. St. Martin was standing near the door when police opened it, and he said nothing in objection to their entry. Once police entered, they took St. Martin into custody based on the allegation of assault and took him out to a police van. He was then placed under arrest. After St. Martin was taken outside, the officers asked Latoya for her consent to search the attic where she had said that drugs might be hidden. Latoya consented to the search of the attic. Officers then went outside to the police vehicle and asked St. Martin for his consent to search the residence. He refused.

After obtaining Latoya’s consent, the officers accompanied her to the attic and searched the attic. One officer noticed money sticking out from under some clothes, moved the clothes, saw two bags with what looked like cocaine, and seized the bags and the money. Chemical tests showed that the substance was cocaine.

The officers who spoke with Latoya relayed what she had told them to a drug investigator who immediately drafted an affidavit in support of a search warrant for a second search. This warrant contained some inaccurate statements regarding what Latoya had told police. The statements attributed to her included some statements that indicated she had knowledge about St. Martin “regularly” and “often” having drugs at the apartment. The circuit court later found that Latoya had not made those statements. The affidavit also stated that police had seized a large amount of cocaine as a result of the initial search.

In the initial, warrantless search, police had seized cash and bags of cocaine. In the second search conducted after police obtained a warrant, police had seized cash, a scale, cell phones and documents. St. Martin moved to suppress the evidence seized in both searches.

St. Martin argued that the evidence seized in the first search should be suppressed because police did not have valid consent to search his apartment without a warrant. He argued that the evidence seized in the second search should be suppressed because the warrant was invalid because it was based on an affidavit that referenced the cocaine seized in the first search and that included the inaccurate statements. [vi]

St. Martin’s motion to suppress was denied and he appealed.  The issue certified before Supreme Court of Wisconsin was as follows:

Whether a resident who is seated in a nearby police vehicle is “physically present” such that his express refusal to consent would bar a warrantless search in spite of the consent given by a co-tenant?

St. Martin argued that the rule set forth in Georgia v. Randolph should apply whereas the State argued that this case should be governed by rule set forth in the United States v. Matlock.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin then noted that there are several legal principles that govern this case.  First, the court recognized that consent is an established exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. [vii]  Second, the court noted that the State bears the burden, by clear and convincing evidence, that a warrantless search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. [viii]  Lastly, the court stated

[W]ithin the so-called “shared dwelling” category of warrantless consent searches, the United States Supreme Court has spelled out how to proceed when there is not unanimous consent. It has said that “the consent of one who possesses common authority over premises or effects is valid as against the absent, non-consenting person with whom that authority is shared.” Matlock, 415 U.S. at 170. It has further stated that a “physically present inhabitant’s express refusal of consent to a police search is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant.” Randolph, 547 U.S. at 122. As applied to cases, the interaction of these rules can appear formalistic, as the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged. It has recognized the “fine line” drawn in shared-dwelling consent cases and has stated that “the formalism is justified.” Randolph, 547 U.S. at 121. It is helpful that the Court has made that point clear because this is a case where it comes down to applying the rule set forth in Randolph with such justified formalism. [ix]

The court then, having stated that Randolph should be applied with formalism, then examined how other courts have applied the holding of Randolph.  First, the court looked at the United States v. Henderson [x], decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  In Henderson, the police were called to the defendant’s home in response to a report of domestic violence. Henderson met the police at the threshold and, specifically and clearly refused to consent to their presence in his home. Henderson was arrested for domestic violence and transported to jail. After he was transported, police asked his wife for consent to search the house; she consented and signed a consent-to-search form.  The Seventh Circuit held that in order for Randolph to apply, the defendant must have been present for the consent and must have objected or refused consent.  Here, the defendant was not present.   Therefore they held that the consent was valid and they stated that Randolph …”expressly disinvites” any reading broader than its specific facts. [xii]

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin also examined the United States v. Hudspeth [xiii], from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In Hudspeth, the defendant had told police that he had downloaded child pornography images from the internet onto his computer at work.  The police located those images on his work computer and asked to search his home computer.  Hudspeth refused to consent to a search of his home computer, and he was arrested and transported to jail.  Officers then went to his home and spoke with his wife.  She consented to a search the home computer although the police did not tell her about her husband’s earlier refusal.  The Eighth Circuit noted that the Randolphmajority consistently repeated it was Randolph’s physical presence and immediate objection to Mrs. Randolph’s consent that distinguished Randolph from prior case law.”  Thus, since Hudspeth was not present and objecting when they asked his wife for consent, the court upheld the search.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin then applied the narrow reading of Randolph, much like the Seventh and Eighth Circuits, to the facts of this case.  First, the court noted that St. Martin never objected to the officer’s entry into his home in response to the domestic violence report.  Second, St. Martin was arrested for battery (a charge which he does not dispute) and taken to a police car.  There is no evidence that he was removed from the residence under a pretext so the police could search for drugs.  Third, while he refused consent to search while in the back of the police car, his girlfriend (Latoya) gave consent while in the residence.  St. Martin was clearly not physically present and objecting to her consent, although he was nearby in a police car.  Lastly, by all indications, Latoya had apparent authority to consent in that her driver’s license listed that address as her residence, she had a key and St. Martin left her in the apartment after his arrest.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin then held

We are persuaded that Randolph is to be construed narrowly. Although the language therein explaining the holding is very helpful, the rule stated in Randolph does not apply in this case because we conclude that St. Martin was not physically present at what the United States Supreme Court called the “threshold colloquy.” This case closely resembles the facts presented in the Matlock case. The consent given by St. Martin’s co-tenant was valid, and as in the Matlock case, that consent rendered the search constitutionally permissible because it cannot be trumped by an objection from an absent tenant. The cocaine and currency seized in the initial search of the attic is therefore admissible evidence. [xiv] [internal citations and quotations omitted][emphasis added]

As such, the consent search was constitutionally permitted under the Fourth Amendment. 

The court also further decided that that the subsequent search under the search warrant was constitutionally permitted.  This was because, even redacting inaccurate information from the search warrant affidavit, probable cause for the warrant was still present.  In fact, in light of the fact that the court held the drugs found in the consent search were admissible, the probable cause for the search warrant was even clearer.  As such, the evidence discovered under the search warrant was also admissible.


NOTE:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.


[i] 415 U.S. 164 (1974)

[ii] 497 U.S. 177 (1990)

[iii] 547 U.S. 103 (2006)

[iv] 2011 WI 44 , 2011 Wisc. LEXIS 334

[v] St. Martin at 7

[vi] Id. at 10-13

[vii] Id. at 20 (citing Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973))

[viii] Id. at 21 (citing State v. Kieffer, 217 Wis. 2d 531 (1998)

[ix] Id. at 21-22

[x] 536 F. 3d XXXX

[xi] St. Martin at 26

[xii] 518 F. 3d 954 (8th Cir. 2008)

[xiv] St. Martin at 34

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