An enduring maxim of American criminal jurisprudence is that police officers need to secure a search warrant from a judicial officer before they can search a person's home or personal effects, absent an emergency.
The factual details surrounding a so-called warrantless search can obviously be vigorously debated -- and often are -- in any given case. The United States Supreme Court has stated as a general matter, however, that protections against warrantless searches are at the "very core" of the Constitution, specifically the 4th Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
That bedrock criminal law principle seemingly suffered a material setback recently. Last Tuesday, the nation's highest court stated in a 6-3 ruling that a warrantless house search can be carried out by police officers, even when no emergency (often termed "exigent circumstances") exists.
That comes with a catch: The search is acceptable provided that an onsite residential occupant first gives permission for the police to enter.
The ruling from the court involved an appeal from a California prison inmate now serving a lengthy robbery term. Several years ago, an investigation led police to the man's apartment, where he objected to a search of the premises on the grounds that police lacked a warrant. The police did not conduct a search, although they did arrest the suspect and remove him from the home.
They then returned to the premises -- still without a warrant -- and received permission from the man's girlfriend to conduct a search. That search uncovered incriminating evidence.
Writing for the U.S. Supreme Court majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito stated that the warrantless search was lawful owing to the consent received from an occupant.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote on behalf of the court's three dissenters, noting that the decision unjustifiably eroded constitutional protections.
Source: Los Angeles Times, "L.A. man loses U.S. Supreme Court case involving warrantless search," David S. Savage, Feb. 26, 2014