In a 5-to-3 decision, the justices sided with Scott F. Randolph of Americus, Ga., who was charged with cocaine possession in 2001 after his wife, Janet, called the police during a domestic dispute, complained that her husband was using cocaine and then led the officers to a bedroom, where there was evidence of cocaine abuse.
The issue before the justices was whether the police can search a home without a warrant if one occupant gives consent but another occupant, who is physically present, says "no." The majority held today that at least under some circumstances, such a search is invalid.
"Scott Randolph's refusal is clear, and nothing in the record justifies the search on grounds independent of Janet Randolph's consent," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
The result for Mr. Randolph, a lawyer, is that the cocaine-related evidence seized by the police and used to prosecute him must be thrown out, a conclusion that the Georgia Supreme Court reached earlier when it declared that since both marriage partners "had common control and authority" over the premises, the consent of both was needed to conduct a search without a warrant.
Justice Souter said a finding for Mr. Randolph — in the specific circumstances that marked this case — was compelled by Fourth Amendment principles against unreasonable searches and seizures. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the main dissenter, bitterly disagreed, as he and Justice Souter exchanged darts in writing.
Chief Justice Roberts said the result of the majority's conclusion "is a complete lack of practical guidance for the police in the field, let alone for the lower courts." Justice Antonin Scalia joined the chief justice's dissent and wrote one of his own, as did Justice Clarence Thomas.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. took no part in the case, since he joined the court after it was argued.
On July 6, 2001, Mrs. Randolph complained to the police that after a fight, her husband had taken their son away. When the officers reached the house, she told them her husband was a cocaine user whose habit had caused financial difficulties, Justice Souter recounted. (Mr. Randolph denied cocaine use, countering that it was his wife who abused drugs and alcohol.)
As it turned out, Mr. Randolph returned to the house just after the police arrived, explained that he had taken the child to a neighbor's place and — most importantly — "unequivocally refused" permission for the police to search the house.
But having already been given permission by Mrs. Randolph, the officers searched anyway and found traces of what appeared to be cocaine. An officer bagged that evidence and, at the direction of the district attorney's office, stopped searching until a warrant could be obtained.
With the search warrant, the police re-entered the house and found still more evidence of drug use, on the basis of which Mr. Randolph was indicted.
Justice Souter said nothing in today's ruling would bar the police from entering a house, with or without warrant, under different situations — to protect a person from harm or to catch a fleeing suspect, for example. Justice Souter noted that prosecutors did not maintain that Mrs. Randolph told the police that she needed protection.
But Chief Justice Roberts was not persuaded. "The possible scenarios are limitless, and slight variations in the fact pattern yield vastly different expectations about whether the invitee might be expected to enter or go away," he said.
"Such shifting expectations," he wrote, "are not a promising foundation on which to ground a constitutional rule."
Justice Souter countered by labeling some of Chief Justice Roberts's concern a "red herring."
And alluding to the chief justice's complaint that the majority did not address what would happen if there were a third household occupant involved, Justice Souter said, "We decide the case before us, not a different one."