Law School Case Brief
Fernandez v. California - 571 U.S. 292, 134 S. Ct. 1126 (2014)
In the context of a warrantless search, the consent of one who possesses common authority over premises or effects is valid as against the absent, nonconsenting person with whom that authority is shared.
Police officers observed a suspect in a violent robbery run into an apartment building and heard screams coming from one of the apartments. They knocked on the apartment door, which was answered by Roxanne Rojas, who appeared to be battered and bleeding. When the officers asked her to step out of the apartment so that they could conduct a protective sweep, petitioner Walter Fernandez came to the door and objected. Suspecting that he had assaulted Rojas, the officers removed Fernandez from the apartment and placed him under arrest. He was then identified as the perpetrator in the earlier robbery and taken to the police station. An officer later returned to the apartment and, after obtaining Rojas' oral and written consent, searched the premises, where he found several items linking Fernandez to the robbery. At trial in California state court, Fernandez filed motion to suppress that evidence, which was denied by the trial Court. Fernandez pled nolo contendere to the firearms and ammunition charges; he was found guilty by a jury of robbery and infliction of corporal injury. The trial court sentenced Fernandez to 14 years' imprisonment. An appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgment, holding that because Fernandez was not present when Rojas consented to the search, the exception to permissible warrantless consent searches of jointly occupied premises was present, and thus his motion to suppress was properly denied. Thereafter, the Supreme Court of California denied Fernandez' petition for review. Fernandez was granted a writ of certiorari.
Was the warrantless search of Fernandez' valid even without consent?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the state appellate court's judgment. The Court held that an occupant who was absent due to a lawful detention or arrest stood in the same shoes as an occupant who was absent for any other reason. Consent searches were permissible warrantless searches and were clearly reasonable when the consent came from the sole occupant of the premises. When multiple occupants were involved, the rule extended to the search of the premises or effects of an absent, nonconsenting occupant so long as the consent of one who possessed common authority over the premises or effects was obtained. However, when a physically present co-inhabitant refused to consent, that refusal was dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant. A controlling factor in Georgia v. Randolph was the objecting occupant's physical presence, which was absent in Fernandez' case. Randolph did not extend to Fernandez' situation, where Rojas' consent was provided well after Fernandez had been removed from their apartment. The Fourth Amendment did not give Fernandez the power to bar Rojas from controlling access to her own home until such time as he chose to relent. The Court refused to extend Randolph to the very different situation in the instant case, where consent was provided by an abused woman well after her male partner had been removed from the apartment they shared.
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