To the Fourth Amendment rule ordinarily prohibiting the warrantless entry of a person's house as unreasonable per se, one jealously and carefully drawn exception recognizes the validity of searches with the voluntary consent of an individual possessing authority. That person might be the householder against whom evidence is sought or a fellow occupant who shares common authority over property, when the suspect is absent, and the exception for consent extends even to entries and searches with the permission of a co-occupant whom the police reasonably, but erroneously, believe to possess shared authority as an occupant.
Police were called to a home for a domestic dispute. Defendant's wife told the police officers that defendant was a cocaine user and that there was evidence of such in the house. When asked for permission to search the house, defendant unequivocally refused. His wife, however, readily gave consent to search and led an officer to defendant's bedroom where a section of a drinking straw with a powdery residue was found. Further evidence of drug use was seized after obtaining a search warrant. Defendant was indicted for possession of cocaine. The Court held that since the wife had no recognized authority in law or social practice to prevail over her husband, her disputed invitation, without more, gave police no better claim to reasonableness in entering than they would have had in the absence of any consent at all. The Court noted that disputed permission was no match for the central value of the Fourth Amendment, and the State's other countervailing claims did not add up to outweigh it.
Whether such an evidentiary seizure is lawful with the permission of one occupant when the other, who later seeks to suppress the evidence, is present at the scene and expressly refuses to consent?
The Fourth Amendment recognizes a valid warrantless entry and search of a premises when the police obtain the voluntary consent of an occupant who shares, or is reasonably believed to share, common authority over the property, and no present co-tenant objects. The constant element in assessing Fourth Amendment reasonableness in such cases is the great significance given to widely shared social expectations, which are influenced by property law but not controlledby its rules. Thus, Matlock not only holds that a solitary co-inhabitant may sometimes consent to a search of shared premises, but also stands for the proposition that the reasonableness of such a search is in significant part a function of commonly held understandings about the authority that co-inhabitants may exercise in ways that affect each other's interests.
In the circumstances here at issue, a physically present co-occupant's stated refusal to permit entry renders warrantless entry and search unreasonable and invalid as to him. Thus, here, respondent's refusal is clear, and nothing in the record justifies the search on grounds independent of his wife's consent.