The two main parties in most police searches are the police and the suspect whose property is being searched. In some cases, a third party may be involved, who may consent to a search on behalf of the suspect. A classic example of this is where the suspect is not home and a roommate consents to the police searching the suspect’s property. Here, the roommate may be considered the third party who offered consent on behalf of the suspect.
Generally, if a suspect is going to be searched by the police, the police needs a search warrant to search in places where the person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” (such as in their bedroom or living quarters). However, the police can still search such areas without a warrant if the suspect willingly and knowingly consents to such a search. This is known as a “consent search”.
However, the question of whether a third party can consent on behalf of another is a more complex situation. Third party consent searches may be legal if:
- The area being searched is shared in common with the suspect and the third party (such as a living area, a common dining room, hallways, shared bathrooms, etc.).
- The third party legally has some control over the shared area- i.e., they have a key to such areas or their name is listed jointly on a lease.
- The consent is offered willingly and without and coercion or deceit.
Also, courts usually treat police searches of private areas on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if the search was being conducted in the suspect’s closet, which they always kept locked and indicated as “off-grounds” to even their roommate, then the roommate might not be authorized to consent to a search of that area. Again, this all depends on the individual facts of each case.
Consent searches can often play an important part of a criminal investigation. You may wish to hire a criminal lawyer if you need assistance with legal issues such as police searches and individual privacy rights. An attorney can provide you with legal assistance on your issues, and can represent you during the upcoming trial.