Law School Case Brief
United States v. Matlock - 415 U.S. 164, 94 S. Ct. 988 (1974)
When the prosecution seeks to justify a warrantless search by proof of voluntary consent, it is not limited to proof that consent was given by the defendant, but may show that permission to search was obtained from a third party who possessed common authority over or other sufficient relationship to the premises or effects sought to be inspected. Common authority is not to be implied from the mere property interest a third party has in the property. The authority which justifies third-party consent does not rest upon the law of property, with its attendant historical and legal refinements, but rests rather on mutual use of the property by persons generally having joint access or control for most purposes, so that it is reasonable to recognize that any of the co-inhabitants has the right to permit the inspection in his own right and that the others have assumed the risk that one of their number might permit the common area to be searched.
Law enforcement officers arrested defendant Matlock, a bank robbery suspect, in the yard in front of the house in which he lived. Without asking defendant which room he occupied or whether he would consent to a search, some officers went to the door of the house and were admitted by a woman. The officers told her that they were looking for money and a gun, and they asked if they could search the house. She consented to a search of the house, including the upstairs bedroom in which defendant lived. The woman's parents were the lessees of the house, and defendant had paid them rent for his room. The officers found $4,995 in cash in defendant's room, and defendant was subsequently indicted in a federal district court for bank robbery.
Alleging that the search of his room was invalid, defendant sought to suppress evidence consisting of the cash found in his room. At the suppression hearing, the government presented testimony that the woman who consented to the search told the officers that she and defendant occupied the same bedroom, shared the use of a dresser in the room, and had been sleeping together in the room regularly, including the early morning of the day of the search, and the government also presented testimony that the woman and defendant, at various times and places and to various persons, had made statements that they were wife and husband. The district court held that the testimony as to these out-of-court statements was inadmissible to prove the truth therein averred, and that the government did not meet its burden of proving that the woman's relationship to defendant's bedroom was sufficient to make her consent to the search valid against defendant. Accordingly, the district court granted an order suppressing the evidence consisting of the cash found in defendant's room. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. Defendant sought further review.
Was the search, conducted with consent voluntarily given by a woman occupying the same bedroom as the defendant, valid under the Fourth Amendment?
The United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the lower courts, reaffirming the principle that the search of property, without warrant and without probable case, but with proper consent voluntarily given, was valid under the Fourth Amendment. According to the Court, in justifying warrantless search by proof of voluntary consent, the prosecution may show that permission to search was obtained from a third party who possessed common authority over or other sufficient relationship to the premises or effects sought to be inspected. In the case at bar, the Court determined that the State has overcame its burden of proof as to the woman’s authority to consent to the search, given the fact that defendant and the woman jointly occupied the room, and even represented themselves as husband and wife. The Court also noted that, under the circumstances, there was no apparent reason for the trial judge to distrust the evidence and to exclude the third party's declarations from his own consideration. Finally, the Court noted that because the third party was a witness for defendant at the suppression hearing, she was available for cross-examination. Thus, the risk of prejudice, if any, from the use of hearsay was reduced.
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