For a vast majority of the population, interaction with a law enforcement officer is a stressful and unnerving experience. Whether this occurs during a routine traffic stop or after a knock on your door, most citizens generally tense up when confronted. There is nothing wrong with that response, in fact, it should be considered a positive because it means you’re likely not doing anything that merits consideration from the police.
However, a large part of that uneasiness can be stemmed from the unknown, specifically not knowing your constitutional rights in the situation. When a LEO shows up at your door or on your property the 4th Amendment takes center stage. Interpretation of the law is constantly evolving. Unlike police officers, most citizens are not confronted with these laws daily and likely unaware of what a LEO can and can’t do when arriving at your residence. There are quite a few myths out there, so we will break the law down so you are better prepared if the situation arises.
The most common reason for the police to knock on your door is due to an anonymous noise complaint by one of your neighbors. As anyone who has hosted or been invited to a house party in college can attest, this is a frequent occurrence. The obvious solution is to become friends with all of your neighbors and invite them to the party. Since it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be close friends with the entire neighborhood, it is wise to know your constitutional rights as an American citizen. The 4th Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” So what does that all mean for your party? In short, if the police are at your door without possession of a search or arrest warrant you do not have to answer the door. While this is within your right, you could be making the problem worse by not answering the knock. Declining to answer may give the LEO cause to secure a warrant and return. As you might expect, they are less likely to be forgiving of any minor offenses if forced to come out twice.
It would be better in most cases to talk to the LEO while being mindful of your rights. The first step in this scenario is to get your party under control before you answer the door. Generally speaking, a noise complaint is not a justified means to enter your home without a warrant. However, if when opening your door, there is evidence that may suggest illegal activity in “plain view” you are also opening yourself up for a possible citation or arrest. You should quickly turn down anything loud and if guests have been drinking, it would be wise to send them to another room. After you’ve accomplished this, the next step is to make sure the conversation takes place outside with the door closed behind you. This lets the officer know you have not granted permission to enter and may even demonstrate to LEOs that you are aware of your rights. If you have a friend or roommate in a similar state of calm, it may be wise to ask them to step outside as well so you have a witness of your own present for the ensuing conversation.
Talking with the police can be a confusing process. The first thing you need to do is determine the reason for the visit. If their visit is in response to something that involves you or your guests, be respectful in answering questions but refrain from giving any unnecessary details. During the conversation, the line between requests and orders is blurred by LEOs and that is their intention. If you are unsure of the terms under which an officer is asking you to do something, simply asking in return whether you have to comply can eliminate some of the confusion.
There are four main reasons an officer may enter your home without a warrant: the person in control giving consent, an illegal item or act is in plain view, search incident to arrest, and exigent circumstances. The first two are the more likely reasons for an officer having the right to enter your home. Since it may not be in your best interest to completely deny access to an officer wanting to just “look around,” it is wise to clearly state you do not consent to a search. Of course, before letting them inside, we are assuming you have already taken care of anything that may be in “plain view.” While consenting to an officer entering your home isn’t ideal, it may be better in the long run. In most cases, they just want to poke their head in and put a stop to whatever activity is causing the disturbance. Police who are entering on the premises of your arrest are fairly straightforward so it won’t be discussed in detail. However, an officer entering your home without a warrant due to exigent circumstances is more complex. Exigent circumstances exist in emergencies where the process of getting a valid search warrant could compromise public safety or could lead to a loss of evidence. The interpretation of what constitutes an exigent circumstance is constantly involving, Due to this, if an officer enters your home on these grounds, it is best to get an attorney right away who is familiar with these laws and has experience in their defense.
Do these rights extend outside?
It is important to remember that your rights protected by the 4th Amendment can also be extended to the backyard and other surrounding areas of your home (known as the curtilage) provided the area meets certain criteria. Factors taken into consideration when deciding on this extension are: proximity to the home of the area claimed as curtilage, whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home (i.e. fenced in), nature of use, and steps taken by the resident to restrict the view. Once again you see how “plain view” plays a large role in the interpretation of the law. If confronted by LEO without a warrant in an area that may be protected under the 4th Amendment you should follow procedures laid out previously for the inside of your home.
We are a privileged nation in that our police are also bound by laws and not simply seen as “the law.” There are countless LEOs who follow these laws to the letter, however, in every group there are exceptions. It is because of this, the burden falls on you as a citizen to understand your rights and protections. If you believe your 4th Amendment rights have been violated by a LEO you should consult an attorney as soon as possible, even during the encounter if you feel the situation merits immediate action. The delay to react could be the difference in avoiding a large fine or possible jail time.