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Supreme Court wrangles over police searches

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON- The Supreme Court considered whether police may search a home when one resident says to come in but another objects, in an unusually spirited debate Tuesday that drew out even the usually silent Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justices took up a case that arose in a small Georgia town. The wife of a local lawyer invited officers in to search their house after the husband turned them down. The search uncovered evidence of illegal drugs.

The Supreme Court has never said whether the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches covers such a scenario _ when one home occupant says enter and another says no.

Thomas, who rarely asks questions during court sessions, spoke several times and hinted that he would back the police.

The case could be so close that it comes down to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring. If her successor is confirmed before the ruling is announced, her vote will not count.

"Don't we have to look to social understanding and the right to privacy?" O'Connor asked. "The wife says come on in and the husband is right there and says no."

The dispute arose in 2001 when police in Americus, Georgia, were called to a domestic dispute at the home of Scott Fitz Randolph and his wife, Janet.

The two were having marital troubles, and she'd recently taken their son to her parents' home in Canada. Scott Randolph's lawyers said the police call came when she returned for a few days to get belongings.

Janet Randolph led officers to evidence later used to charge her husband with cocaine possession. That charge is on hold while the courts resolve whether the search was constitutional. Georgia's Supreme Court was divided in ruling for Scott Randolph.

Americus is a town of about 17,000 near Plains, the hometown of former President Jimmy Carter. It's about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Savannah and Pin Point, where Thomas was raised.

Thomas Goldstein, the lawyer for Scott Randolph, said it would have taken police only five minutes to get a judge's approval over the telephone for a search warrant.

Michael Dreeben, an attorney for the Bush administration, which backs police in the case, said people should be encouraged to cooperate with law enforcement.

Several justices seemed sympathetic to the police, raising concerns that limits on searches would hamper domestic disturbance investigations.

"The two words on my mind are 'spousal abuse,'" Justice Stephen Breyer said.

Chief Justice John Roberts worried that if a home had 10 occupants, all 10 would have to agree before a search.

The court's two women, O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seemed more inclined to back the rights of homeowners who turn police away.

Eight of the nine justices are married, and several seemed concerned that one spouse could object to a stranger coming into the house and be trumped by the other spouse.

"It seems to me an odd proposition," Justice Antonin Scalia said.

"Can the wife say, `It's OK for you to come in and you can look in my husband's top drawer?'" Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked the lawyer for Georgia, Paula Smith

Smith responded that the wife may have put socks in the drawer.

The case is Georgia v. Randolph, 04-1067.


On the Net:

Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/

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