The LAPD Heads to the Supreme Court

It is a foundational principle in American law that a man’s home is his castle, and that if the police wish to search it for evidence of a crime, they must first obtain a warrant from an impartial magistrate.  Every police officer knows this.  But every police officer also knows there are exceptions, one of which is when a person with “standing,” i.e., an adult who lawfully resides in the home in question, grants consent for the search.

And when two people share a home, and one of them wants to allow the police to search it but the other does not, what do the police do then?  In that case, the person invoking his Fourth Amendment rights wins and the police must obtain a warrant.  But if the objector leaves the home, leaving behind the person who would allow the officers to search, what should the police do then?  And finally, what if the police arrest the objector and take him to the station?  Does his objection to the search override the contrary wishes of the person still in control of the home?

These are questions raised in the case of Fernandez v. California, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last week.  The appellant is one Walter Fernandez, who in October 2009 committed a robbery in Los Angeles.  LAPD officers who responded to that incident focused their attention on a certain apartment building, home to several members of the street gang which the officers believed to be involved.  The officers heard the sound of a struggle coming from one of the apartments, and when they knocked on the door of that apartment it was answered by a woman, Roxanne Rojas, who was holding a baby and bore injuries indicating she had been in a fight.  Rojas claimed she and her son were the only people in the apartment.  The officers were skeptical, and they asked Rojas if they could enter and make sure no one else was inside.

Fernandez then stepped into view wearing only his boxer shorts.  “You don’t have any right to come in here,” he told the officers.  “I know my rights.”  And indeed he did, as did the officers know theirs.  And they also knew their obligations, which at that moment was to arrest Fernandez for inflicting corporal injury on his girlfriend, a felony under California law.

So, there were the officers, with Fernandez under arrest for domestic violence but also suspected of the robbery that had just been reported.  With Fernandez transported to the police station, the officers asked Rojas for permission to search the apartment for evidence of the robbery.  Rojas granted it, orally and in writing, and the search yielded evidence indicating Fernandez’s complicity in the robbery as well as a sawed-off shotgun.

At trial, Fernandez moved to suppress the evidence as the product of an unlawful warrantless search.  The judge denied the motion, and Fernandez was convicted of the robbery, domestic violence, and various other charges; he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.  He appealed the trial judge’s ruling on the evidence but was rebuffed by the California Court of Appeals.  He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.