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Court will clear up rules regarding police searches



Published: Tue, April 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A man faced drug charges after his wife let police into their home.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Scott Randolph didn't want police to search his home after officers showed up to answer his wife's domestic disturbance call.

Janet Randolph had no such reservations. She not only let them in, she led officers to evidence later used to charge Scott 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.

Powers expanding

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.

Janet Randolph called police July 6, 2001, to report a disturbance and asked them to come to their house in Americus, Ga. She and her husband had separated, but she moved back in two days earlier with his 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 Scott Randolph objected. Janet Randolph, however, consented and led police to the couple's bedroom, where officers saw a straw with white powder.

Janet 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.

Privacy rights

In siding with Scott Randolph, the courts 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.

"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.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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