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Supreme Court Allows Disputed Home Searches Without Warrant

Police can search a home without a warrant if one of the occupants consents — and even if an occupant who would object isn’t home at the time, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The 6-3 vote, which highlights Americans’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, stems from a 2009 case in Los Angeles.

Walter Fernandez was suspected in an earlier robbery and stabbing, and when police arrived without a warrant at his apartment, he told them they couldn’t come inside. Officers, however, noticed his girlfriend was bruised and bloodied, and so they removed Fernandez on suspicion of domestic abuse.

In the meantime, the girlfriend, who also lived at the apartment, allowed police in. Authorities found a shotgun, ammunition and a knife.

Fernandez’s lawyers had tried to argue that while the girlfriend had consented to a search, he objected. The court held that her consent was enough because the defendant was not physically present to object — even though police were the reason he wasn’t there.

The high court upheld the conviction against Fernandez, who had been sentenced to 14 years in prison on robbery and gun charges.

Back in 2006, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that police are able to search a home as long as one occupant says yes. But this latest case also tested the right of the police to enter when the objector was no longer there.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan were the three dissenting votes. They said the ruling makes it too easy for police to conduct searches without a warrant.

“Today’s decisions tells the police they may dodge it, never mind ample time to secure the approval of a neutral magistrate,” Ginsburg said.

— Pete Williams and Erik Ortiz