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When a prosecutor seeks to rely upon consent to justify the lawfulness of a search, he has the burden of proving that the consent was, in fact, freely and voluntarily given. This burden cannot be discharged by showing no more than acquiescence to a claim of lawful authority. A search conducted in reliance upon a warrant cannot later be justified on the basis of consent if it turns out that the warrant was invalid. The result can be no different when it turns out that the State does not even attempt to rely upon the validity of the warrant, or fails to show that there was, in fact, any warrant at all.
Petitioner Bumper was tried for rape in North Carolina state court, an offense punishable by death unless the jury recommended life imprisonment. The prosecution was permitted to challenge for cause all prospective jurors who stated that they were opposed to capital punishment or had conscientious scruples against imposing the death penalty. A rifle which was introduced at the trial was obtained by a search of petitioner's grandmother's house, where he resided. Four officers appeared at the home, announced that they had a warrant to search it, and were told by the owner to "go ahead." At the hearing on a motion to suppress, which was denied, the prosecutor stated that he did not rely on a warrant to justify the search, but on consent. The jury found petitioner guilty, but recommended life imprisonment. The state supreme court affirmed, holding that the trial court had properly denied the request to suppress the evidence because it had been lawfully seized and was clear evidence of guilt. Petitioner sought and was granted certiorari by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Under the circumstances of the case at hand, was the evidence lawfully seized by the police officers?
The Court held that there was no consent when that consent was given only after the official conducting the search asserted that he possessed a warrant. The Court determined that such consent was not consent for purposes of authorizing a warrantless search. According to the Court, one who, upon the command of an officer authorized to enter and search and seize by search warrant, opens the door to the officer and acquiesces in obedience to such a request, no matter by what language used in such acquiescence, is but showing a regard for the supremacy of the law. The presentation of a search warrant to those in charge at the place to be searched, by one authorized to serve it, is tinged with coercion, and submission thereto cannot be considered an invitation that would waive the constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures, but rather is to be considered a submission to the law.