The state Supreme Court Thursday warned police to be doubly careful when searching places without a warrant as they overturned the conviction of an Everett man.
The high court unanimously said a roommate or houseguest can give only limited permission for a search, and officers are advised to make sure that permission comes from someone with authority to give it.
Both the state and U.S. constitutions generally view warrantless searches as unreasonable, and they allow only a few exceptions – including a search with permission from a home’s owner.
“Law enforcement officers who seek to conduct a warrantless search based on the exception of consent are well advised to ask for the woman and/or the man of the house before seeking consent to search a home,” Justice Tom Chambers wrote.
“If the man or woman of the house is not present, a brief inquiry could determine the identity of the person present and their authority to give consent.”
The court threw out Robert John Morse’s conviction for methamphetamine possession.
The case involved the search of Morse’s apartment in Everett in 2002. Officers were looking for someone else, a woman wanted on felony warrants. Morse’s houseguest answered the door and let police in to look for the woman.
Officers went into the master bedroom and spotted Morse, some drugs and drug paraphernalia. Morse consented to a search after he was arrested, and was convicted of drug possession.
He appealed, arguing that police failed to get his permission before entering and searching his bedroom. He said police should have asked him, not his guest, for permission.
The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments, but the high court overturned the lower courts and threw out the conviction.
The ruling is another blow to law enforcement, said Mark Roe, chief deputy prosecutor for Snohomish County.
“Police undergo a lot of training, and I’m not sure mind-reading is one of the courses they take,” Roe said. “This is another step in the wrong direction.”
Roe also has been critical of state Supreme Court rulings overturning scores of second-degree murder convictions in which death resulted from an assault.
“When acting in good faith and truly believing the person in front of you has the authority to grant a search, you should be able to search,” Roe said. “We’ll have to let law enforcement know this means they will have to change the way they do business.”
Morse’s attorney, Susan Wilk of the Washington Appellate Project in Seattle, said Morse has been free on appeal and will not have to serve the 30-day sentence imposed for a first-time offender.
Morse, now in his early 30s, is staying out of trouble, she said. Morse has juvenile Parkinson’s disease and uses a wheelchair, she said.
The case is an important clarification of the law, she said.
“It basically underscores the warrant requirement and really places the burden on police to make reasonable inquiries about the person who answers the door,” she said. “Is it, as the court quaintly put it, the man or woman of the house, or someone else?”
Chambers said exceptions to court-authorized warrants are “jealously and carefully drawn.”
The high court said a houseguest or roommate can authorize a search of the common areas, but not the bedroom or other spaces where the owner or leaseholder expects privacy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or email@example.com.