United States v. Matlock

415 U.S. 164 (1974).

One-Sentence Takeaway:  The consent which is necessary to justify a warrantless search under the Fourth Amendment may be obtained from a third party who possesses common authority over the premises sought to be inspected.

Summary:  Matlock lived with Gayle and her parents.  He was arrested in the front yard of his home, detained in a squad car parked nearby, and asked no questions of consent to search his home.  Instead, the officers went to the front door of the residence where they encountered Gayle who consented to the search of the premises, which search resulted in the officers fining incriminating evidence.

Matlock’s objected that the warrantless search had violated his Fourth Amendment rights because he had never consented to it.

The United States Supreme Court rejected Matlock’s argument and held that warrantless entry and search by law enforcement officers does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of “unreasonable searches and seizures” if the officers have obtained the consent of a third party who possesses common authority over the premises.

The Court determined that: “The consent of one who possesses common authority over premises or effects is valid as against the absent, non-consenting person with whom that authority is shared.”

However, in defining the contours of that joint control, the Court established that the third party who gives consent must jointly inhabit, possess and use the property for most purposes, and that a mere property interest in the property is insufficient to confer such authority:

Common authority is, of course, not to be implied from the mere property interest a third-party has in the property. The authority which justifies the third-party consent … rests rather on mutual use of the property by persons generally having joint access or control for most purposes, so that it is reasonable to recognize that any of the co-inhabitants has the right to permit the inspection in his own right and that the others have assumed the risks that one of their number might permit the common area to be searched.

Id. at 171.

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