WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police without a warrant cannot search a home when one resident says to come in but another tells them to go away, and the court’s new leader complained that the ruling could hamper investigations of domestic abuse.
Justices, in a 5-3 decision, said that police did not have the authority to enter and search the home of a small town Georgia lawyer even though the man’s wife invited them in.
The officers, who did not have a search warrant, found evidence of illegal drugs.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches covers a scenario when one home occupant wants to allow a search and another occupant does not.
The ruling by Justice David Souter stopped short of fully answering that question — saying only that in the Georgia case it was clear that Scott Fitz Randolph was at the door and objected to the officers entry.
In his first written dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said that “the end result is a complete lack of practical guidance for the police in the field, let alone for the lower courts.”
The case fractured a court that has shown surprising unanimity in the five months since Roberts became chief justice. Justices swapped barbs in their writings, with Souter calling Roberts’ view a “red herring.”
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas filed separate dissents, and Justice John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer wrote their own opinions to explain their votes in favor of the man whose home was searched.
Stevens said that “assuming that both spouses are competent, neither one is a master possessing the power to override the other’s constitutional right to deny entry to their castle.”
Georgia had asked the court to allow it to use evidence obtained in the 2001 search in Americus, Ga., that followed a police domestic dispute call.
Randolph and his wife, Janet, were having marital troubles. She led officers to evidence later used to charge her husband with cocaine possession. That charge was on hold while the courts considered whether the search was constitutional.
State court upheld
Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled for Scott Randolph, and the high court agreed.
“This case has no bearing on the capacity of the police to protect domestic victims,” Souter wrote. “No question has been raised, or reasonably could be, about the authority of the police to enter a dwelling to protect a resident from domestic violence; so long as they have good reason to believe such a threat exists.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy was the swing voter, joining the court’s four more liberal members.
Roberts’ dissent was unusually long — almost as long as the main opinion. He predicted “severe” consequences for women who invite police in only to be overruled by their husbands.
Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the case, because he was not on the court when it was argued.
The case is Georgia v. Randolph, 04-1067.
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