Recently, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Fernandez v. California that further chipped away at citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights, including those in West Virginia. In a six-to-three vote, the Court determined that police could search a house without a warrant, even if the suspect objected, as long as the suspect is not presently on the scene and the co-tenant gives consent.
In Fernandez v. California, police officers saw a suspect in a violent robbery run into an apartment building, which was followed by screams from one of the apartments. The officers knocked on the apartment door, which was answered by Roxanne Rojas. Rojas appeared to be battered and bleeding. When the officers requested that she step out of the apartment in order for them to conduct a protective sweep, Walter Fernandez appeared and objected to their entry. The police officers suspected that Fernandez was the one who beat Rojas and placed him under arrest. Later, Fernandez was identified as the one involved in the robbery and taken to the police station. One of the police officers then returned to the apartment and obtained Rojas’s oral and written consent to conduct a search. During the search, the officer discovered many items that linked Fernandez to the robbery. Fernandez attempted to have that evidence suppressed, but the trial court denied it, and Fernandez was later convicted. Fernandez appealed, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed. The Court of Appeal stated that because Fernandez was not present when Rojas consented to the search, an exception that arises when one of the joint tenants objects to their home being searched without a warrant does not apply. Fernandez later petitioned the United States Supreme Court.
Writing for the Supreme Court majority, Justice Samuel Alito noted that as a rule, jointly occupied premises may be searched if the consent of just one of the tenants was “firmly established,” even if the other tenant was nearby and in a position to be asked to give consent. If both tenants were required to give their approval, then lawful occupants would be prevented from inviting police officers into their homes to conduct searches under similar circumstances.
Justice Alito was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Breyer, while Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented. Writing for the dissent, Justice Ginsburg stated that any exception to Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless search and seizure should be “jealously and carefully drawn.” She also noted that in permitting just one tenant to permit police officers to search, the ruling gave police officers an incentive to avoid seeking proper judicial authority for future searches.
Given how many people are reluctant to refuse anything asked by a police officer, the implications of Fernandez v. California are chilling.
The Wolfe Law Firm has been providing legal services for nearly 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm provides services in the areas of personal injury, criminal defense, bankruptcy, and mediation. If you are looking for an experienced West Virginia criminal defense attorney, contact us today.