The United States Supreme Court further clarified the rules regarding consent searches in homes in Randolph v. Georgia, decided March 22, 2006. The Randolph case began as a fairly typical call to the police. Mr. and Mrs. Randolph were involved in a marital dispute that prompted the couple to separate. Mrs. Randolph went to Canada along with her son to stay with her parents in late May of 2001. She returned to Georgia in July.

On July 6th, Mrs. Randolph called the police to complain that here husband had left with the couple’s son. While speaking with the police she reported that the marital trouble was the result of her husband’s cocaine use which also caused financial difficulties. She also told the officers about the recent separation and her stay in Canada. While the officers were speaking, Mr. Randolph returned to the house. He informed officers that he had taken his son to the neighbor’s house because he was fearful his wife was going to flee the country with the child and return to Canada. He also denied the cocaine use and reported that the real difficulty was with his wife, who abused both drugs and alcohol.

Sergeant Murray, along with Mrs. Randolph went to the neighbor’s house and retrieved the couple’s child. When they returned, Mrs. Randolph continued to discuss her husband’s cocaine use and also told the officers that there was evidence of Mr. Randolph’s drug use in the house.

Sergeant Murray then asked Mrs. Randolph for consent to search the house which she “readily gave.” Mrs. Randolph led the officers to a bedroom where they recovered a straw with a powdery residue suspected to be cocaine on it. Sergeant Murray went out to his police car to obtain an evidence bag and call the local prosecutor. The local prosecutor advised the officers to obtain a search warrant before searching further. When Sergeant Murray re-entered the house, Mrs. Randolph withdrew here consent. The police obtained a search warrant which led to the seizure of further evidence. This evidence was used to indict Scott Randolph. Throughout his appeals, Mr. Randolph maintained that law enforcement officers should not have been able to enter his home based on his wife’s consent while he was present at the scene and objecting to the entry.

At the outset it is important to note that at no time was this a domestic violence call. The call was strictly a dispute between a husband and wife who were in the process of separation over the placement of their son.

The decision in this case is a very narrow one, essentially the Court ruled that if one equal co-occupant is present and objects to the entry of law enforcement officials, the officials would not be justified in making an entry (under the consent exception to the warrant requirement) in order to search for evidence against the objecting party. In the majority opinion the Court makes several observations and distinctions that are important in order to understand just how limited the ruling in this case is with respect to law enforcement operations.

It was previously decided by the Court in United States v. Matlock, 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.” In Matlock, the police had arrested Matlock in the yard of a house where he lived with a woman named Graff and a number of her relatives. Matlock had been placed in a police car before the police asked Graff if they could enter the home. She granted consent and the subsequent search and seizure was upheld. In the decision in Randolph the Court asserted that a consent granted under the facts of Matlock would still be valid since Matlock was not on the scene objecting to the search. The Court did indicate that law enforcement officers should not knowingly remove a party from the scene in order to purposely avoid the possibility of an objection.

The Court also distinguished Illinois v. Rodriguez, where a woman answered the door and appeared to live at the residence. At the time the woman answered the door, Rodriguez was asleep in the residence. The woman, who actually had no common authority over the house consented to the police entry. The Court, in Rodriguez, held that law enforcement officers may rely on the appearance of authority and need not take affirmative steps to confirm if a person who appears to have the authority to consent actually has that authority. The Court in Randolph, asserted that the ruling from Rodriguez was still valid and that the sleeping co-occupant who is not in a position to object was different from Mr. Randolph who was physically present and verbally and unequivocally objecting. It was further asserted that law enforcement had no obligation to seek out co-occupants when seeking consent to search for evidence.

Thus, the ruling in Randolph is limited to the co-occupant who is present at the scene and is involved in the verbal exchange seeking consent and objects to the entry. The Court stated that the absent co-occupant assumes the risk that his or her roommate will allow others in while he or she is absent.

The Court also pointed out that the ruling in Randolph would not affect cases where the officers were in fear of the safety of the person who was allowing entry. The Court stated that this entry would be justified by the concern for the person’s personal safety on not on their consent. Thus, the Court, in actuality indicated that the officers faced with a threat, such as would likely be present in a domestic violence (as opposed to a dispute between domestic partners) case would be justified in entering on exigent circumstances and would not need consent.

Ironically, the majority also indicated that the officers, following Mr. Randolph’s denial of consent may have had exigent circumstances to enter the home to prevent the destruction of drugs or at the very least prevent Mr. Randolph from re-entering the home while police sought a warrant. The Court suggested that its previous decision in Illinois v. Mc Arthur, would have allowed the officers to seize the home while they sought a warrant or perhaps enter the home based upon exigent circumstances if Mr. Randolph entered the home, due to the possibility that he would attempt to destroy the evidence of his drug use.

In Illinois v. Mc Arthur, the officers were faced with a similar situation. Officers were keeping the peace at a domestic situation while the wife removed some of her belongings from her husband’s home. The wife reported that the husband had marijuana under the couch. The officers sought consent from the husband which was denied. The chief of police, who was present at the scene, then informed the husband that he would not be allowed to re-enter the home while other officers sought a warrant. Chuck Mc Arthur was not detained nor arrested, he was merely prohibited from re-entering the home unescorted while officers sought a warrant. The Court upheld the officers’ actions in the Mc Arthur case. The Court’s comparison indicated that officers could have similarly restrained Randolph from re-entering the home while they sought a warrant and, if he had gotten back into the house, officers would have been justified in entering the home to prevent the destruction of evidence.

The Court also noted that there could be some cases where the hierarchy (or rank) of co-occupants would give one occupant the ability to allow law enforcement into the home notwithstanding the objection of the other occupant. The two scenarios mentioned by the Court was the parent who consents to a search over a child’s objection where the parent has not granted the child any exclusive control, or the case of military housing where a ranking person would have authority over subordinate’s objections.

The Court’s majority pointed out that some additional possibilities existed with respect to the evidence in the Randolph home. First, if Mrs. Randolph had delivered the items to the police, the seizure would be valid. Additionally, if she had simply provided the same information, officers could have used that information to obtain a warrant.

With respect to law enforcement operations, officers should always recognize that there are three ways to obtain entry into a home: warrant, exigency, or consent. There is no requirement that officers use only one of these entry methods at one time. Thus, an officer who is about to enter under exigent circumstances could also ask for consent and document both of the justifications for the entry.

Officers should always attempt to use constitutionally accepted methods, thus, if there is a method that has already been approved by the courts, use it. Here with 20/20 hindsight, officers could have used the method previously approved in Illinois v. Mc Arthur to justify their entry by obtaining a search warrant while freezing the scene, or entering the premises to prevent the destruction of evidence under exigent circumstances if unable to freeze the scene.

Key Points:

  • Officers may not enter a home to seize evidence based upon the consent of one occupant in a case where a co-occupant is present and is objecting to the entry.
  • 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 over the premises is shared.
  • An absent co-occupant assumes the risk that a present co-occupant will invite others into the house (including law enforcement officials).
  • Law enforcement officers may rely on the appearance of authority when seeking consent and are not required to take affirmative steps to confirm the person’s actual authority.
  • Where officers are in fear of a person’s personal safety, they may enter the dwelling. These entries are justified under exigent circumstances and do not rely on consent or the lack of consent i.e. domestic violence case.
  • In some limited cases a co-occupant may have superiority that will allow them to give consent over their co-occupant’s objection i.e. parent/child.
  • In cases where officers receives reliable information from an occupant in the dwelling regarding the presence of evidence or contraband and consent to enter but the co-occupant objects to the entry officers may:

    • Freeze the scene, restricting access to the home while a warrant is sought.
    • If officers can articulate that in the time it takes to get a warrant, evidence will be lost or destroyed, the officers may enter under the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement. (The Court in Randolph noted that the co-occupants objection may be a factor supporting exigent circumstances.)

***************POLICY ALERT***************

Review Policy Manual Provisions on Consent Searches:


“Officers, when seeking consent to search for evidence or contraband may not conduct a search based on consent when a party with equal authority over the premises or effect is present and objects to the search.”


Some Other Consent Authority Rules:

  1. Landlord cannot consent to search of tenant’s apartment-Chapman v. United States, 365 U.S. 610 (1961).
  2. Hotel Manager cannot consent to entry of rented room- Stoner v. California, 376 U.S. 483 (1964).
  3. Hotel staff can enter room to clean and make repairs, but cannot invite the police. United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48 (1951).
  4. Overnight Guests have an expectation of privacy and may object to a search of their temporary quarters. Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U.S. 91 (1990).

Exigent Circumstances:

  1. Destruction of evidence in a jailable offense constitutes exigent circumstances to enter-Illinois v. Mc Arthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001). (Officers denied access to trailer while warrant obtained)
  2. Destruction of evidence in the time it takes to get a warrant-Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966).
  3. Protecting safety of officers- Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969).
  4. Hot Pursuit-Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294 (1967).
  5. Imminent destruction of building containing evidence- Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499 (1978).
  6. Likelihood that suspect will imminently escape- Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10 (1948).

Citation 1: Illinois v. Mc Arthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001)
Citation 2: United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164
Citation 3: Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177

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