In a 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court this week ruled that, in a limited set of circumstances, police officers can conduct a warrantless search of a person's residence over that person's objection, if another occupant consents to such search. The facts of California v. Fernandez are somewhat unique and, as a result, the Fernandez decision may have limited application. Nonetheless, the language of Fernandez implies it may have a significant impact upon the way police officers obtain consent, namely, by separating the home's occupants and "persuading" the weakest link to consent to a warrantless search. After Fernandez, all occupants should make clear their refusal to consent to a warrantless search or risk having a court declare items seized to have been lawfully obtained.
We are often asked whether police officers have the right to approach a person's home without a warrant and then use what they observe to search the home. Generally, in the absence of "no trespassing" signs or fences, officers have the right to engage in what is referred to a "knock and talk" of a home, that is they have the right to walk on the sidewalk of your home, knock on your front door and engage you in a "consensual encounter." They do not have the right to conduct warrantless searches of your property. Nor do they have the right to enter into your backyard. In fact, the right to engage you is extremely limited. Law enforcement personnel often exceed the authority given to them under the walk and talk doctrine. This article discusses two cases which have limited the ability of police officers to conduct warrantless searches in the curtilage of your home and what you should do to protect yourself from unlawful searches and seizures on your property.
In Maryland v. King, ___ U.S. ___ (June 3, 2013) the Court upheld the warrantless swabbing of individuals arrested for what the Court characterized as "serious" offenses. Left open by the Court's decision are the questions of 1) what constitutes a serious offense; and 2) whether the warrantless seizure of DNA samples is permissible for individuals convicted of misdemeanor offenses, which, by definition, can result in incarceration of one year or less. Unfortunately, as the result of the Court's sweeping language in the King decision, lower courts may have a difficult time in distinguishing between a "serious" offense justifying the warrantless sampling of DNA evidence and the routine misdemeanors for which hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for or convicted of every year in this country. Thus, what the Court apparently views as a non-intrusive law enforcement practice may have a much greater impact on the constitutional rights of individuals than the Court could have envisioned, a problem highlighted by Justice Scalia in his dissent.