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Sixth Circuit Finds Co-Tenants Have Equal Possessory Interests

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

He-said-she-said cases can be tedious. Here, we have a Sixth Circuit first impression case where he (the defendant) said no to a search, while she (the co-occupant), said yes.

So was it an unreasonable search? Do residential co-tenants have equal possessory interests?

Four officers in Smyrna, Tennasse, conducted a "knock and talk" to investigate an anonymous tip indicating that the occupants at the house where Lanerrick Johnson was staying had marijuana and a firearm.

At the time of the knock and talk, Angela Rawls, Johnson's mother-in-law, owned the home. Rawls lived in the home with her mother, Maudie Conerly, and her daughter, Karen Johnson (Lanerrick Johnson's wife, "Karen"), along with several children. Karen and Johnson were separated, but he had been staying with her intermittently at the residence for about five months.

Conerly allowed the officers to enter the home, at which time Johnson and Karen entered the scene. Johnson claimed that he told the officers that he lived in the house and objected to the search. The officers claimed that Johnson indicated that he did not live in the house and did not object to the search.

Karen, perhaps hoping to head off a full-fledged search, voluntarily turned over a small amount of marijuana from her dresser drawer. But, as we lawyers know, when you give the cops an ounce, they'll search for a pound.

The police proceeded to search the bedroom that Johnson and Karen shared and hit the motherload: a handgun, counterfeit money, 100 grams of marijuana, digital scales, computer equipment, and media storage devices. A grand jury charged Johnson with possessing counterfeit securities, producing and possessing false identification documents, and aggravated identity theft.

Johnson pleaded guilty on all counts and was sentenced to 45 months in prison after losing a motion to suppress the evidence in his case. This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the sentence finding that the evidence was fruit of an unreasonable search.

The Sixth Circuit found that there was no serious dispute that Johnson had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the bedroom, which he shared with his wife and which he used to store personal belongings. Noting that the district court found that Lanerrick Johnson was present when the police arrived, and that he expressly objected to the search, the Sixth Circuit found that the search of the bedroom was unreasonable as to the Johnson.

The court reasoned that Georgia v. Randolph, which permits a warrantless search with the voluntary consent of a person possessing authority, does not distinguish among the "multiplicity of living arrangements," that occurred here. This particular arrangement of adult co-occupants--a grandmother-in-law, mother-inlaw, wife, and husband--does not fall within any "recognized hierarchy," so Johnson's express objection to the search was sufficient to render the search of the bedroom unreasonable as to him, notwithstanding the consent given by Karen and Conerly.

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