Consent Upheld in Search of Gangbanger's Home
(CN) - A gangbanger convicted of stabbing a man during a robbery has no basis to challenge the search of his apartment that his then-girlfriend had authorized, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Abel Lopez had been robbed after cashing a check in Los Angeles on Oct. 12, 2009. His assailant threatened that Lopez was in "D.F.S." territory, short for a Los Angeles criminal street gang called the Drifters. The man then cut Lopez's wrist with a knife and summoned other members of his gang to help with the robbery and beating.
Responding officers then saw a man run into a building, soon followed by screaming and fighting. When they went to the door, they found a woman, Roxanne Rojas, holding a baby and sporting fresh bruises.
The officers removed the boyfriend, Walter Fernandez, from the apartment and conducted a field showup with Lopez, who identified him as his assailant.
An hour after Fernandez's arrest, a detective returned to the apartment and informed Rojas. She told officers that Fernandez had hit her in the face when she confronted him about his alleged infidelity. With consent from Rojas to search the apartment, officers found gang paraphernalia and a sawed-off shot gun hidden in a heating unit.
Rojas later stopped cooperating with police and blamed the alleged mistress for her injuries.
Fernandez pleaded no contest to possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon, and a jury convicted him of second-degree robbery with a knife in support of a criminal street gang. The jury also found that Frenandez had willfully inflected corporal injury against Rojas.
California's Second Appellate District mostly affirmed the judgment in August 2012, rejecting his claims that the trial court should have suppressed the evidence seized from the warrantless search of the apartment. It also upheld as sufficient the evidence used to support the gang allegation finding, among other things.
The court did reverse the conviction related to the battered woman so that the trial court could review the personnel file of one of the officers.
Though the California Supreme Court refused to review the case, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Fernandez a writ of certiorari this past May.
The court affirmed Tuesday with a vote of 6-3.
"While it is clear that a warrantless search is reasonable when the sole occupant of a house or apartment consents, what happens when there are two or more occupants?" Justice Samuel Alito asked for the majority. "Must they all consent? Must they all be asked? Is consent by one occupant enough? The court faced that problem 40 years ago in United States v. Matlock."
Then, in the 2006 resolution of Georgia v. Randolph, the court "recognized a narrow exception to this rule, holding that the consent of one occupant is insufficient when another occupant is present and objects to the search."
Randolph does not apply, however, where the objecting occupant is absent and another occupant consents, the majority concluded.
Though Fernandez noted that he objected to a search of his apartment as soon as Rojas opened the door, the majority found no reason for this objection to outweigh Rojas' consent after his arrest.
"Such a rule would be unreasonable," and it would "produce a plethora of practical problems," Alito wrote.
"Suppose that a husband and wife owned a house as joint tenants and that the husband, after objecting to a search of the house, was convicted and sentenced to a 15-year prison term," he added. "Under petitioner's proposed rule, the wife would be unable to consent to a search of the house 10 years after the date on which her husband objected. We refuse to stretch Randolph to such strange lengths.
"Nor are we persuaded to hold that an objection lasts for a 'reasonable' time.
Indeed, "what interval of time would be reasonable in this context?" Alito asked. "A week? A month? A year? Ten years?"
The consent from Rojas is also a testament to equal rights, according to the ruling.
"Denying someone in Rojas' position the right to allow the police to enter her home would also show disrespect for her independence," Alito wrote. "Having beaten Rojas, petitioner would bar her from controlling access to her own home until such time as he chose to relent. The Fourth Amendment does not give him that power."
Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas each concurred separately to say Randolph had been incorrectly decided but that the majority applied Randolph faithfully here.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, meanwhile argued in dissent that the majority gave police leave to dodge the warrant requirement.
With Fernandez in custody, "there was scant danger to persons on the premises, or risk that evidence might be destroyed or concealed, pending request for, and receipt of, a warrant," Ginsburg wrote.
Instead of disputing the fact that police could have readily obtained a warrant to search Fernandez's apartment, the majority "instead disparages the warrant requirement as inconvenient, burdensome, entailing delay '[e]ven with modern technological advances,'" she added.
In reality, modern advancements mean that courts should "vigilantly resist" dilution of the warrant requirements, the dissent states.
The dissent also closes with a note about the majority's defense of Rojas' autonomy, saying that "the specter of domestic abuse hardly necessitates the diminution of the Fourth Amendment rights at stake here."