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Can One Person Consent to the Search of Another’s Belongings in Virginia?

On Behalf of | Jul 21, 2020 | Search and Seizure

In a recent opinion, a Virginia appellate court upheld a trial court’s decision not to suppress evidence the defendant claimed to be the product of an illegal search and seizure. This decision provides valuable insight on a third-party’s ability to consent to the search of another’s property under Virginia criminal law.

According to the court’s opinion, the case involved the seizure of drugs, cash, and ammunition from an apartment. The apartment belonged to a woman who had called the police on the defendant, who was her boyfriend. When the police arrived the defendant falsely identified himself, so the officers placed him under arrest. The police then asked the defendant’s girlfriend whom the apartment belonged to. She replied that she was the sole lessee and gave the officers permission to search the apartment.

When the officers got inside the apartment, they found a pile of bags in the foyer, which the girlfriend identified as belonging to the defendant. The officers searched the bags and found more than $14,000 in cash. The officers also searched a red varsity jacket belonging to the defendant, and found an unmarked bottle containing several dozen pills. When the officers searched the rest of the apartment they found a purple suitcase with more than a dozen pounds of marijuana and a safe, which was later found to contain additional cash and several rounds of 9mm ammunition.

At trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence found in the apartment, arguing that his girlfriend’s permission to search the apartment did not give the officers authority to search his belongings. The trial court suppressed the evidence found in the foyer of the apartment because the officers knew that the duffle bags and varsity jacket belonged to the defendant. However, the court allowed the evidence found in the suitcase and the safe. The defendant was found guilty at trial, and appealed the decision to admit this evidence at trial.

Under Virginia law, a third party has actual authority to consent to the search of another’s property where the third party has joint access to the property or control of the property for most purposes. Even if the third party lacks actual authority, if they have apparent authority they can also consent to the search of another’s property. A third party has apparent authority if the facts available to an officer at the time of the search would lead a reasonable officer to believe the third party had authority to consent to the search.

In this case, the court’s decision came down to whether or not the defendant’s girlfriend had apparent authority to give the officers consent to search the purple suitcase. Looking at the facts, the court ruled that the defendant’s girlfriend had apparent authority to grant consent to search the suitcase. What led to this conclusion was the fact that the officers did not know who the suitcase belonged too, and that the defendant’s girlfriend had indicated that she had belongings in the room where the suitcase was found. This was enough to give the officers a reasonable belief that the girlfriend’s consent also included the suitcase, and include it in their search.

Have You Been Subjected to a Search and Seizure in Virginia?

If you have been subject to a search by law enforcement, speak with an attorney to make sure that your rights we not violated. The Virginia criminal defense attorneys at Robinson Law, PLLC stand ready to defend your rights. Our attorneys have the skill and experience to prove if officers violated your rights, and can help to make sure that you are not punished for it. We handle all types of criminal cases, including Virginia drug cases, gun crimes, and more. Give us a call today at 703-542-3616 to schedule your free consultation.