Can a girlfriend or boyfriend give consent to search your house?
UPDATED: December 7, 2012
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Generally, no, a girlfriend or boyfriend does not have the legal authority to allow someone to search your personal belongings. The test would be whether the person giving the consent to the police has an equal right to use the premises. Whether or not someone has an equal right may be inferred from the circumstances. For example, a wife may have an equal right to use anything in the home; therefore, she may have the right to give consent to a search of her husband’s closet.
On the other hand, a paramour may not have equal access in that he or she may not have a key to the home. Yet, if the girlfriend or boyfriend is living with the suspect, they may have equal use of the house. The question of who can consent gets stickier when less familial relationships are involved. Can a hotel clerk consent to a search of a hotel guest’s room? The answer at one time was no, but now differs from state to state.
Whether or not the consent is given by the suspect or a third party, the consent must be voluntary. This means that the person’s consent cannot be made under duress or coercion. An example of duress might be that a person was not advised that he or she has the right to refuse to consent. An example of coercion is where an officer threatens or scares a person into consenting to a search.
The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. In order for law enforcement to bypass the Fourth Amendment to search a person's home, there must be reasonable cause to do so. The police have to have a search warrant signed by a judge before entering a home, unless given consent. Consent is a 'reasonable exception' to the requirement of obtaining a warrant. If voluntary consent from someone who has legal or apparent rights over the property is given, police do not need a warrant.
This rule of actual or apparent authority over the home may or may not apply to a girlfriend or boyfriend. Actual authority is generally attached to those who own the home or own half or more of the belongings inside the home. So if a paramour does in fact own such property they have legal consent to let someone into your home. If the significant other does not own the home but shares a reasonable expectation of privacy, they may also have this consent. But if they are merely someone you are dating and you have left them at your house, for example, while going to the store, they do not have legal authority to let police search your home without a warrant or other reasonable consent.