In this appeal, the Court considered the validity of a warrantless search of a house, specifically addressing whether the knowing and voluntary consent by an occupant to search a premises is constitutionally effective against a third party when an absent co-occupant has objected to the search.
Co-Occupant consent to search valid. State v. Lamb 217 NJ 442 (2014)
After a shooting, mother could give permission to search her home where son lived.
Under the circumstances of this appeal, an occupant’s knowing and voluntary consent to search a premises is constitutionally effective against a third party and is not nullified by the prior objections of an absent co-occupant whose absence is not the result of a police effort to avoid an objection.
Decided May 19, 2014
CUFF, P.J.A.D. (temporarily assigned), writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court considers the validity of a warrantless search of a house, specifically addressing whether the knowing and voluntary consent by an occupant to search a premises is constitutionally effective against a third party when an absent co-occupant has objected to the search.
Outside of a home in the community where defendant allegedly lived, Pennsville Township Police Detective Greg Acton located two cars matching the description provided by the victims. Acton and another officer knocked on the door multiple times while defendant’s stepfather, Steven Marcus, yelled that they should leave. Although Marcus ultimately opened the door, he insisted defendant was not there and again demanded that the officers leave the premises. Acton removed Garcia from the house when she approached the front door. She told Acton that defendant was hiding under the bed in the room they shared and confirmed that she had been driving the car, that she saw the gun, and that defendant fired a shot into the air. According to Garcia, in addition to defendant and Marcus, three young children and defendant’s mother, Karen Marcus, were in the house.
Police called the residence in an effort to persuade either defendant or Marcus to come outside. Once Marcus left the home, he was placed in custody and removed from the area. At the insistence of his mother, defendant also left and was arrested. Acton then spoke to Karen, who later admitted that she signed a consent-to-search form after being told the police would obtain a search warrant if she refused. She explained that one of her young children was distraught, she did not want her new home torn apart in a search, and she was upset about her son’s behavior. Karen took the officers to defendant’s room, where they found a handgun.
Defendant was indicted on two counts of attempted murder, four counts of aggravated assault, one count of unlawful possession of a handgun, and one count of possession of a handgun for an unlawful purpose. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his bedroom, arguing that Karen’s will was overborne by police. The trial court denied the motion, finding that Karen acted voluntarily and without coercion. The court noted that although Karen undoubtedly was upset and fearful, these emotions did not overwhelm her ability to consent to a search. Moreover, the court concluded that the police had no obligation to leave the premises as directed by Marcus, explaining that his earlier refusal to permit entry did not nullify Karen’s subsequent consent. Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun and was sentenced to a five-year prison term subject to three years of parole ineligibility.
Defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that Karen knowingly consented to the search. It agreed that her consent was not nullified by Marcus’s earlier refusal, emphasizing that Marcus was not present when Karen consented, his refusal was not contemporaneous, and there was no evidence he was removed from the home to avoid his objection. The Court granted defendant’s petition for certification limited to the issue of whether consent by an occupant to search a premises is constitutionally effective against a third party when an absent co-occupant has objected to the search. 213 N.J. 531 (2013).
HELD: Under the circumstances of this appeal, an occupant’s knowing and voluntary consent to search a premises is constitutionally effective against a third party and is not nullified by the prior objections of an absent co-occupant whose absence is not the result of a police effort to avoid an objection.
1. Appellate courts reviewing the grant or denial of a motion to suppress are required to uphold the trial court’s factual findings when supported by sufficient credible evidence, reversing only when demanded by the interests of justice. Deference is not given to a trial court’s interpretation of the law, which is reviewed de novo.
2. Under the automatic standing rule, virtually all defendants are permitted to contest a search or seizure where they have either a possessory, participatory or proprietary interest in the place searched or property seized, or if possession of the seized evidence is an essential element of guilt. Here, defendant has automatic standing to contest the search and seizure since he clearly had a possessory interest in the seized handgun, possession of which is an essential element in several of the charged offenses.
3. The preference for police officers to obtain a warrant prior to searching an individual’s home arises from the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I of the New Jersey Constitution, which guarantee the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures in one’s home. Where consent to search is freely and voluntarily given, it is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. If multiple people reside in the same home, any occupant with common authority over the premises or effects sought to be inspected may voluntarily consent to a lawful search. However, a co-occupant’s consent is insufficient basis for a reasonable search if a potential defendant with self-interest in objecting is physically present and objects. Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103, 121 (2006). In contrast, a potentially objecting occupant who is nearby but not part of the conversation need not be considered so long as he or she has not been removed by police for the purpose of avoiding a possible objection. Id. at 121-22. Recently, in Fernandez v. California, 571 U.S. ___, ___ (2014), the Supreme Court underscored the limited scope of Randolph, holding “that an occupant who is absent due to a lawful detention or arrest stands in the same shoes as an occupant who is absent for any other reason.” Since it would be inconsistent with the narrow exception in Randolph, the Supreme Court also declined to place a durational limit on an objection’s effectiveness. Id. at ___. In New Jersey, no prior cases have considered the constitutionality of a search as to a third occupant against whom the government wished to use the seized evidence when the search was conducted with consent of one co-occupant subject to the contemporaneous objection of another.
4. Here, the focus of the challenge is whether Karen’s consent was overridden by Marcus’s prior strenuously expressed demands that the police leave the premises. The Court concludes that the rule announced in Randolph does not render Karen’s consent invalid and the search unreasonable. The Randolph holding is very narrow and emphasizes that a search predicated on the consent of one occupant over the objection of another renders the warrantless search constitutionally infirm only as to the objecting occupant. Thus, the search here is not unreasonable as to defendant even in the face of Marcus’s demands. Moreover, there was no suggestion that Marcus renewed his objection after leaving the house, and the record likewise provides no support for a conclusion that the police engineered the departures of Marcus or defendant in order to prevent them from objecting to the warrantless search of defendant’s room. In fact, the police had probable cause to arrest defendant for the earlier shooting and to detain Marcus once he left the house. Any doubt that the police did not comport with the limited holding in Randolph is resolved by Fernandez, supra, which places an occupant who is absent due to a lawful detention or arrest in the same position as any other absent occupant. 571 U.S. at ___. Since Marcus’s lawful removal nullified his earlier objection, Karen had full authority to consent to the search. The Court also recognizes that the circumstances here were infused with exigency since the home was in close proximity to other residences and Karen was inside with three small children and a loaded gun. The record attests to a reasonable police response, with no suggestion that any occupant’s absence was contrived to avoid a potential objection to the search. Karen provided knowing and voluntary consent, rendering the warrantless search reasonable under the circumstances of this appeal.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER; JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN and PATTERSON; and JUDGE RODRÍGUEZ (temporarily assigned) join in JUDGE CUFF’s opinion.