Generally speaking, consent searches are on the long list of unwanted events that create additional hurdles to mounting an effective defense in any criminal case. Fernandez v. California, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on February 25, 2014, exacerbates these problems.
Fernandez, a suspect in a violent robbery was seen running into an apartment building. Screams were subsequently heard from one of the apartments in that building. The police knocked on the door, which was answered by Roxanne Rojas. Ms. Rojas was battered and bleeding. The officers asked her to step outside so that they could conduct a protective sweep. Fernandez then came to the door and objected to their presence in the apartment. The officers suspected that he had assaulted Rojas, removed him from the apartment, and arrested him. He was then identified as the perpetrator of the prior robbery and taken to the police station. An officer then returned to the apartment, asked for and received Rojas’ consent for a search, and found evidentiary items linking Fernandez to the robbery. The trial court denied a suppression motion, Fernandez was convicted, and the California Court of Appeals affirmed.
On review, the U.S. Supreme Court recalled Shneckloth v. Bustamonte, which held that consent searches are permissible warrantless searches. A situation where the home only has one occupant who consents to the search does not raise any issues. The court noted further that U.S. v. Matlock held that when the premises has multiple occupants, such a search is valid even if only one occupant is present and consents, so long as that occupant has common authority over the premises. Finally, in Georgia v. Randolph, the Court held that where a physically present occupant refuses to consent, that refusal is dispositive as to him, notwithstanding the consent of another occupant. In the matter at bar, Rojas was the only occupant present when the subsequent request for consent was made, and the police obviously knew that Fernandez previously refused consent. The issue was whether and/or to what extent Fernandez prior refusal, made when he was present, carried forward to the time of the subsequent police request for consent to search, when he was no longer present because of his previous arrest for the robbery. Continue reading