Fernandez v. California (2014)

Supreme Court of the United States

Walter Fernandez v. California 

Decided Feb. 25, 2014 – 571 U.S. 292


Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

Our cases firmly establish that police officers may search jointly occupied premises if one of the occupants consents. In Georgia v. Randolph we recognized a narrow exception to this rule, holding that the consent of one occupant is insufficient when another occupant is present and objects to the search. In this case, we consider whether Randolph applies if the objecting occupant is absent when another occupant consents. Our opinion in Randolph took great pains to emphasize that its holding was limited to situations in which the objecting occupant is physically present. We therefore refuse to extend Randolph to the very different situation in this case, where consent was provided by an abused woman well after her male partner had been removed from the apartment they shared.




After backup arrived, the officers knocked on the door of the apartment unit from which the screams had been heard. Roxanne Rojas answered the door. She was holding a baby and appeared to be crying. Her face was red, and she had a large bump on her nose. The officers also saw blood on her shirt and hand from what appeared to be a fresh injury. Rojas told the police that she had been in a fight. Officer Cirrito asked if anyone else was in the apartment, and Rojas said that her 4–year–old son was the only other person present.

After Officer Cirrito asked Rojas to step out of the apartment so that he could conduct a protective sweep, petitioner appeared at the door wearing only boxer shorts. Apparently agitated, petitioner stepped forward and said, “‘You don’t have any right to come in here. I know my rights.’” Suspecting that petitioner had assaulted Rojas, the officers removed him from the apartment and then placed him under arrest. Lopez identified petitioner as his initial attacker, and petitioner was taken to the police station for booking.

Approximately one hour after petitioner’s arrest, Detective Clark returned to the apartment and informed Rojas that petitioner had been arrested. Detective Clark requested and received both oral and written consent from Rojas to search the premises. In the apartment, the police found Drifters gang paraphernalia, a butterfly knife, clothing worn by the robbery suspect, and ammunition. Rojas’ young son also showed the officers where petitioner had hidden a sawed-off shotgun.


Petitioner was charged with robbery, infliction of corporal injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or child’s parent, possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of a short-barreled shotgun, and felony possession of ammunition.

Before trial, petitioner moved to suppress the evidence found in the apartment, but after a hearing, the court denied the motion. Petitioner then pleaded nolo contendere to the firearms and ammunition charges. On the remaining counts—for robbery and infliction of corporal injury—he went to trial and was found guilty by a jury. The court sentenced him to 14 years of imprisonment.



While consent by one resident of jointly occupied premises is generally sufficient to justify a warrantless search, we recognized a narrow exception to this rule in Georgia v. Randolph. The Court reiterated the proposition that a person who shares a residence with others assumes the risk that “any one of them may admit visitors, with the consequence that a guest obnoxious to one may nevertheless be admitted in his absence by another.” But the Court held that “a physically present inhabitant’s express refusal of consent to a police search [of his home] is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant.” The Court’s opinion went to great lengths to make clear that its holding was limited to situations in which the objecting occupant is present. 


In this case, petitioner was not present when Rojas consented, but petitioner still contends that Randolph is controlling. He advances two main arguments. First, he claims that his absence should not matter since he was absent only because the police had taken him away. Second, he maintains that it was sufficient that he objected to the search while he was still present. Such an objection, he says, should remain in effect until the objecting party “no longer wishes to keep the police out of his home.” Neither of these arguments is sound.

We first consider the argument that the presence of the objecting occupant is not necessary when the police are responsible for his absence. In Randolph, the Court suggested in dictum that consent by one occupant might not be sufficient if “there is evidence that the police have removed the potentially objecting tenant from the entrance for the sake of avoiding a possible objection.” We do not believe the statement should be read to suggest that improper motive may invalidate objectively justified removal. Hence, it does not govern here.

This brings us to petitioner’s second argument, viz., that his objection, made at the threshold of the premises that the police wanted to search, remained effective until he changed his mind and withdrew his objection. This argument is inconsistent with Randolph’s reasoning in at least two important ways. First, the argument cannot be squared with the “widely shared social expectations” or “customary social usage” upon which the Randolph holding was based.   

It seems obvious that the calculus of this hypothetical caller would likely be quite different if the objecting tenant was not standing at the door. When the objecting occupant is standing at the threshold saying “stay out,” a friend or visitor invited to enter by another occupant can expect at best an uncomfortable scene and at worst violence if he or she tries to brush past the objector. But when the objector is not on the scene (and especially when it is known that the objector will not return during the course of the visit), the friend or visitor is much more likely to accept the invitation to enter. Thus, petitioner’s argument is inconsistent with Randolph’s reasoning.

Second, petitioner’s argument would create the very sort of practical complications that Randolph sought to avoid. The Randolph Court recognized that it was adopting a “formalis[tic]” rule, but it did so in the interests of “simple clarity” and administrability.


If Randolph is taken at its word—that it applies only when the objector is standing in the door saying “stay out” when officers propose to make a consent search—all of these problems disappear.

Putting the exception the Court adopted in Randolph to one side, the lawful occupant of a house or apartment should have the right to invite the police to enter the dwelling and conduct a search. Any other rule would trample on the rights of the occupant who is willing to consent. Such an occupant may want the police to search in order to dispel “suspicion raised by sharing quarters with a criminal.” And an occupant may want the police to conduct a thorough search so that any dangerous contraband can be found and removed. In this case, for example, the search resulted in the discovery and removal of a sawed-off shotgun to which Rojas’ 4–year–old son had access.

Denying someone in Rojas’ position the right to allow the police to enter her home would also show disrespect for her independence. Having beaten Rojas, petitioner would bar her from controlling access to her own home until such time as he chose to relent. The Fourth Amendment does not give him that power.

The judgment of the California Court of Appeal is affirmed.

Justice GINSBURG, with whom Justice SOTOMAYOR and Justice KAGAN join, dissenting.

This case calls for a straightforward application of Randolph. The police officers in Randolph were confronted with a scenario closely resembling the situation presented here. After Walter Fernandez, while physically present at his home, rebuffed the officers’ request to come in, the police removed him from the premises and then arrested him, albeit with cause to believe he had assaulted his cohabitant, Roxanne Rojas. At the time of the arrest, Rojas said nothing to contradict Fernandez’ refusal. About an hour later, however, and with no attempt to obtain a search warrant, the police returned to the apartment and prevailed upon Rojas to sign a consent form authorizing search of the premises. 

In this case, the police could readily have obtained a warrant to search the shared residence. The Court does not dispute this, but instead disparages the warrant requirement as inconvenient, burdensome, entailing delay “[e]ven with modern technological advances.”  

Although the police have probable cause and could obtain a warrant with dispatch, if they can gain the consent of someone other than the suspect, why should the law insist on the formality of a warrant? Because the Framers saw the neutral magistrate as an essential part of the criminal process shielding all of us, good or bad, saint or sinner, from unchecked police activity.

I would honor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement and hold that Fernandez’ objection to the search did not become null upon his arrest and removal from the scene. “There is every reason to conclude that securing a warrant was entirely feasible in this case, and no reason to contract the Fourth Amendment’s dominion.” 

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

Justice Souter, who wrote for the majority in Randolph, retired before Fernandez was decided. In addition, Justice Kennedy, who voted with the Randolph majority, supported the Fernandez majority in its limitation of the holding of Randolph to its unusual facts. Justice Breyer, who concurred with the Court’s judgement in Randolph but did not endorse all of the majority’s reasoning, also joined Justice Alito’s majority opinion in Fernandez. In short, while Randolph remains good law, its reasoning may not have support from a current majority of the Court, and its holding is unlikely to be applied to new fact patterns.

Beyond the somewhat esoteric questions presented by Randolph and Fernandez, the broader issue of consent inspires intense disagreements. In particular, dissenting Justices question whether people can really “terminate encounters” with police officers as easily as majority opinions seems to suggest, and they argue that refusing consent is not always practical (or even possible), particularly among portions of the populations already uneasy with police. Observers note that gender, among other factors, affects whether one has the confidence to deny consent. See David K. Kessler, Free to Leave? An Empirical Look at the Fourth Amendment’s Seizure Standard, 99 J. Crim L. & Criminology 51 (2009) (reporting on random survey of Boston residents concerning sidewalks and buses, finding that “women and young people feel less free to leave than other groups”).

On the other hand, robust cooperation with police is essential to the prevention and detection of crime. If police needed a warrant every time they searched a car, bag, or house, investigations would be slowed considerably. This reality encourages Justices to avoid placing high hurdles in the path of officers who seek consent from members of the public.

The Authority of Co-Occupants and Co-Owners to Consent to Searches

Students, generally familiar with shared housing, frequently ask about the scope of authority possessed by a co-occupant to consent to searches of shared living quarters. In particular, when two or more students share a common living room and kitchen yet have individual bedrooms, can one resident of a shared apartment allow police to search the entire premises? The answer is that residents may authorize searches of areas over which they have control, whether sole control or shared control. Accordingly, in the apartment described above, a resident could permit police to search the living room, the kitchen, and her own personal bedroom, but she would not have authority to authorize searches of someone else’s bedroom.

The same principle applies to items that are shared or are lent by an owner to another person. Someone permitted to use and carry a backpack—whether the sole owner, a co-owner, or a borrower—may authorize police to search the bag.

Recall that police can rely on apparent authority—a search is reasonable as long as officers reasonably believe they receive valid consent. Nonetheless, officers should be careful when entering shared premises with consent to learn what areas are controlled by the consenting resident. 


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