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High court to clarify terms of home searches

The Supreme Court said Monday it will use a 2001 Georgia case to clarify when police can search a home when two people have equal use and control of the home.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Scott Randolph didn’t want police to search his home after officers showed up to answer his wife’s domestic disturbance call. Mrs. Randolph had no such reservations.

Janet Randolph not only let them in — she led officers to evidence later used to charge Randolph with drug possession.

The Supreme Court said Monday it will use the case to clarify when police can search homes. The high court previously has said searches based on a cohabitant’s consent is OK, but it’s not clear whether that applies when another resident is present and objects.

Lower courts are divided on the issue, with most holding that consent from one person is sufficient.

In another case the high court agreed to hear in the term beginning next October, justices will consider the scope of police questioning.

Under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court has generally expanded government powers for police searches. Most recently, it ruled 6-2 that police may use drug dogs to sniff outside a car when a motorist is lawfully stopped, even if officers had no particular reason to suspect drug activity.

Stems from Georgia case in 2001
Mrs. Randolph called police on July 6, 2001, to report a disturbance and asked them to come to their house in Americus, Ga. The two had separated, but she moved back in two days earlier with Randolph’s consent.

When police arrived, she complained that Randolph had taken away their son and had been using cocaine. A few minutes later, Randolph returned home and told police the son was at a neighbor’s house.

Officers asked to search the couple’s home, but Randolph objected. Mrs. Randolph, however, consented and led police to the couple’s bedroom where officers saw a straw with white powder.

Mrs. Randolph later withdrew her consent, but police obtained a search warrant based on what officers saw earlier, seized 25 “drug-related” items and charged Scott Randolph with drug possession. A trial court upheld the searches, but a Georgia appeals court reversed it in a ruling the state Supreme Court affirmed last November.

In siding with Randolph, the appellate court ruled police must defer to an objecting occupant’s position when two people have equal use and control of the home. They said police could not violate Randolph’s privacy rights, particularly in a case where a feuding wife had consented over his objections.

Privacy vs. property rights
“When possible, Georgia courts strive to promote the sanctity of marriage and to avoid circumstances that create adversity between spouses,” the appeals court stated. “Allowing a wife’s consent to search to override her husband’s previous assertion of his right to privacy threatens domestic tranquility.”

In their Supreme Court filing, Georgia prosecutors said the ruling “focuses arbitrarily on the rights of the objecting occupant, to the detriment of the consenting occupant who was trying to report a crime and who had just as much access and control over the home as her husband.”

Randolph counters that states have the authority to give their citizens privacy rights that go beyond the U.S. Constitution. A husband’s interest in privacy outweighs the wife’s property right to allow a search, he argues.

According to court filings, three other states also have ruled that all cohabitants present must consent before police may search a home. They are Florida, Minnesota and Washington.

The case is Georgia v. Randolph, 04-1067.

Scope of police questioning
Separately, the court said it will consider whether police went too far in questioning when officers taunted a murder suspect with the possibility of the death penalty after he invoked his right to an attorney.

A Maryland state court dismissed the case of Leeander J. Blake, saying his “Miranda” rights were violated. Blake and Terrence Tolbert were charged with the Annapolis murder of Straughan Lee Griffin, who was shot in the head Sept. 19, 2002.

Blake, who was 17 at the time, initially refused to talk to police when he was arrested and taken to jail. When a police officer delivered a copy of the charging documents listing death as a possible penalty, another officer told Blake, “I bet you want to talk now, huh?”

About half an hour later, Blake told police he did want to talk to them and made incriminating statements about the murder without consulting a lawyer.

The Maryland state court ruled last year the statements couldn’t be used at trial because Blake had invoked his constitutional right to be represented by a lawyer. The comment, “I bet you want to talk now, huh,” was a functional equivalent of interrogation, the appeals court said.

The case is Maryland v. Blake, 04-373.