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What the Supreme Court Says About In-Home Police Searches Without Warrants

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Imagine a scenario where police arrive at your door and ask to search your home. Knowing your rights, you object, saying that if they want to search your home, they need to get a warrant. Then imagine that police arrest you and escort you off the premises, and then convince another resident of your home to consent to an in-home search. Is that search lawful?

According to a Supreme Court ruling in February 2014, it is. This very thing happened to a Los Angeles resident. When he objected to an in-home search, police arrested him and then convinced another resident of the home to let them inside. The evidence police found during this search resulted in multiple criminal charges and a 14-year prison sentence.

To put it another way, when two occupants of the same residence disagree on whether to allow police to conduct a warrantless search of the premises, the resident that objects to the police search must be physically present to do so. The “physically present” requirement does not change even if it was police that escorted the dissenter from the premises, so long as it was a lawful detainment or arrest.

Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Alito said that being absent from the premises due to a lawful detention should be considered the same as being absent from the premises for any other reason. He further explained that if the consenting resident is physically present, then there is no need for police to obtain a warrant to conduct an in-home search.

What does this mean for the Fourth Amendment? Well, it doesn’t change. The Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, so all search and seizure warrants require probable cause in order to be lawful. The question of when and in what situations police need a warrant to do one thing or another is a question that has been debated before. What is certain is that police can only conduct searches and seizures if they have consent or a warrant.

In the dissenting opinion, Judge Ginsburg compared these types of searches to a police state where police don’t just enforce the law – they are the law. According to Ginsburg, “[This] decision tells the police they may dodge [the warrant requirement], never mind ample time to secure the approval of a neutral magistrate.” She continued by stating that further diluting of the warrant requirement is unnecessary due to the speed and ease with which police can now obtain warrants, and should be “vigilantly resisted.”

For more on this story, view it in The Washington Post.