WASHINGTON — Police officers may enter and search a home without a warrant as long as one occupant consents, even if another resident has previously objected, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a Los Angeles case.
The 6-3 ruling, triggered by a Los Angeles Police Department arrest in 2009, gives authorities more leeway to search homes without obtaining a warrant, even when there is no emergency.
The majority, led by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., said police need not take the time to get a magistrate's approval before entering a home in such cases. But dissenters, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, warned that the decision would erode protections against warrantless home searches. The court had previously held that such protections were at the "very core" of the 4th Amendment and its ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
The case began when LAPD officers responded to reports of a street robbery near Venice Boulevard and Magnolia Avenue. They pursued a suspect to an apartment building, heard shouting inside a unit and knocked on the door. Roxanne Rojas opened the door, but her boyfriend, Walter Fernandez, told officers they could not enter without a warrant.
"You don't have any right to come in here. I know my rights," Fernandez shouted from inside the apartment, according to court records.
Fernandez was arrested in connection with the street robbery and taken away. An hour later, police returned and searched his apartment, this time with Rojas' consent. They found a shotgun and gang-related material.
In Tuesday's decision, the high court said Fernandez did not have the right to prevent the search of his apartment once he was gone and Rojas had consented.
In the past, the court has frowned upon most searches of residences except in the case of an emergency or if the police had a warrant from a judge.
But Alito said police were free to search when they get the consent of the only occupant on site.
"A warrantless consent search is reasonable and thus consistent with the 4th Amendment irrespective of the availability of a warrant," he said in Fernandez vs. California. "Even with modern technological advances, the warrant procedure imposes burdens on the officers who wish to search [and] the magistrate who must review the warrant application."
He also said Rojas, who appeared to have been beaten when police first arrived, should have her own right to consent to a search. "Denying someone in Rojas' position the right to allow the police to enter her home would also show disrespect for her independence," Alito wrote for the court.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg in dissent and faulted the court for retreating from the warrant rule.
"Instead of adhering to the warrant requirement, today's decision tells the police they may dodge it," Ginsburg said.
She noted that in 2006, the court had ruled in a Georgia case that a husband standing in the doorway could block police from searching his home, even if his estranged wife consented. In Tuesday's opinion, the majority said that rule applied only when the co-owner was "physically present" to object.
The voting lineup seemed to track the court's ideological divide and its gender split, with male and female justices taking opposite sides. The six men — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy and Alito — voted to uphold Rojas' consent to the search. The court's three women would have honored Fernandez's objection.
Fernandez was later convicted for his role in the street robbery and sentenced to 14 years in prison. After the California Supreme Court upheld his conviction, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the search of his apartment.