A woman told officers the defendant had beaten her. She also told the officers the defendant was in “our” apartment, and that she had clothes and furniture located there. Officers went with the woman to the apartment without an arrest or search warrant. The woman opened the door with a key and gave officers consent to enter. Once inside, the officers saw drugs and paraphernalia in plain view. At that time, the defendant was asleep in the apartment. The officers soon discovered the woman no longer lived in the apartment and that she had moved out weeks earlier.
Whether a warrantless entry is valid under the Fourth Amendment when it is based upon the consent of a third party that the government reasonably believes possesses authority over the premises, but in fact does not?
Yes. A consent search will be valid if a person whom the government reasonably, but mistakenly, believes has the authority to grant consent.
Discussion The Fourth Amendment generally prohibits the warrantless entry of a person’s home, whether to make an arrest or to search for specific objects. The prohibition does not apply, however, to situations in which voluntary consent has been obtained, either from the individual whose property is searched, or from a third party who possesses common authority over the premises.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable” searches and seizures. Where the government makes a factual determination about a search, its reasonable mistake on the issue of authority to consent does not transform the search into an unreasonable one. To satisfy the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement officers must not always be correct, but they must always act reasonably.
This is not to state that the government may always act on someone’s invitation to enter the premises. Even if the invitation is accompanied by an explicit assertion that the person lives there, the surrounding circumstances could be such that a reasonable person would doubt its truth.
In this case, the witness did not have the common authority over the apartment that was necessary to give the officers valid permission to enter or search the apartment. She was an “infrequent visitor” rather than a “usual resident.” However, the officers were reasonably mistaken in their belief that the witness had the authority to consent. The officer’s search based on that apparent authority was reasonable.
497 U.S. 177, 110 S. Ct. 2793 (1990)
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