Georgia v. Randolph: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Conflicting Consent to Unwarranted Searches

A police officer arrests a man in front of a door to a house.

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In Georgia v. Randolph (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court found that evidence seized during an unwarranted search where two occupants are present but one objects to the search, cannot be used in court against the objecting occupant.

Fast Facts: Georgia v. Randolph

  • Case Argued: November 8, 2005
  • Decision Issued: March 22, 2006
  • Petitioner: Georgia
  • Respondent: Scott Fitz Randolph
  • Key Questions: If one roommate consents, but the other roommate actively objects to a search, can evidence from that search be deemed unlawful and suppressed in court with respect to the dissenting party?
  • Majority: Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
  • Dissenting: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito
  • Ruling: Officers cannot carry out a voluntary search of a residence if one resident consents but the other resident objects. Georgia v. Randolph only applies in instances when both residents are present.

Facts of the Case

In May 2001, Janet Randolph separated from her husband, Scott Randolph. She left her home in Americus, Georgia, with her son to spend some time with her parents. Two months later, she returned to the home she shared with Scott. On July 6, police received a call about a marital dispute at the Randolph residence.

Janet told the police Scott was a drug addict and his financial problems had caused the initial strain on their marriage. She alleged there were drugs in the house. Police requested to search the premises for evidence of drug use. She consented. Scott Randolph refused.

Janet led officers to the upstairs bedroom where they noticed a plastic straw with a white powdery substance around the rim. A sergeant seized the straw as evidence. Officers brought both of the Randolphs to the police station. Officers later returned with a warrant and seized more evidence of drug use.

At trial, an attorney representing Scott Randolph motioned to suppress evidence from the search. The trial court denied the motion, finding that Janet Randolph had granted police authority to search a common space. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed and the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari.

Constitutional Issues

The Fourth Amendment allows officers to conduct an unwarranted search of private property if an occupant, present at the time of the search, grants permission. This is considered the “voluntary consent” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to examine the legitimacy of a search and seizure of evidence when two occupants of one property are both present, but one expressly withholds consent to search and the other grants it. Can evidence seized from an unwarranted search in this situation be used in court?

Arguments

In separate briefs, attorneys for the United States and Georgia argued that the Supreme Court had already affirmed the ability of a third party with “common authority” to give consent to search shared property. People who choose to live in shared housing arrangements must bear the risk of their co-occupant consenting to a search of common space. The briefs noted that voluntary searches serve important societal interests like preventing the destruction of evidence.

Attorneys representing Randolph argued that the state relied on cases in which both occupants were not present. A home is a private space. Regardless of whether it is shared with one or more occupants, it is specifically protected under the Fourth Amendment. Allowing one occupant to decide whether or not the police may search the property over another occupant, would be choosing to favor one person's Fourth Amendment protections over another, the attorneys argued.

Majority Opinion

Justice David Souter delivered the 5-4 decision. The Supreme Court held that police cannot conduct a warrantless search of shared living space over the express refusal of a resident, even though another resident has consented. The consent of one resident does not override the refusal of another resident if that resident is present at the time.

Justice Souter looked to societal standards for shared residences in his majority opinion. The Court relied on the idea that there is no “hierarchy” within a shared living space. If a guest stood at the door of a home and one of the residents invited the guest in but the other resident refused to let the guest inside, the guest would not reasonably believe it was a good decision to step into the home. The same should be true for a police officer attempting to gain entry to search without a warrant. 

Justice Souter wrote:

“Since the co-tenant wishing to open the door to a third party has no recognized authority in law or social practice to prevail over a present and objecting co-tenant, his disputed invitation, without more, gives a police officer no better claim to reasonableness in entering than the officer would have in the absence of any consent at all.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that when Janet Randolph brought officers into her home to show them evidence of drug use, it should not be considered a search under the Fourth Amendment. Justice Thomas argued that Ms. Randolph could have turned over the same evidence on her own if officers had not knocked on her door. A police officer should not have to ignore evidence offered to them, he wrote.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote a separate dissent, joined by Justice Scalia. Chief Justice Roberts believed the majority's opinion might make it harder for police to intervene in cases of domestic violence. The abuser could deny police access to a shared residence, he argued. Furthermore, anyone who lives with other people must accept that they have a diminished expectation of privacy.

Impact

The ruling expanded upon U.S. v. Matlock in which the Supreme Court affirmed that an occupant could consent to an unwarranted search if the other occupant was not present.

The Georgia v. Randolph ruling was challenged in 2013 through the Supreme Court case Fernandez v. California. The case asked the Court to determine whether one person's objection, who is not present at the time of a search, could overcome the consent of a person who is present. The Court held that the consent of a present co-tenant takes precedent over the objection of an absent co-tenant.

Sources

  • Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006).
  • Fernandez v. California, 571 U.S. (2014).
  • United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974).
  • “Conflicted Consent When the Objecting Tenant Is Absent - Fernandez v. California.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 128, 10 Nov. 2014, pp. 241–250., harvardlawreview.org/2014/11/fernandez-v-california/.