You’re at home, chillin’ with friends, and there’s a knock at the door.  You’re not expecting anyone, so you check the peep hole and “what to your wondering eyes should appear?”  No, not Santa Claus!  It’s the law.  What should you do and better yet, what are you required to do by law?

No Warrant, No Search!

The Supreme Court has ruled that the home is entitled to maximum search protection. Even if they have probable cause to believe something illegal is going on inside your home, the 4th Amendment requires police to get a signed search warrant from a judge to legally enter and search.

The major exception to the search warrant requirement is where consent is given to an officer’s request to enter. If, for example, an officer is legally invited into your home, any illegal items that are out in the open –  or in “plain view” — can be seized as evidence, which can lead to an arrest. That being the case, it’s always wise to keep any private items that you don’t want others to see out of view of your entrance area.

Don’t Let Them Inside

It’s a good safety habit to determine who is at your door before opening it. If after looking out the window, through your peephole, or asking “Who is it?” you find police at your door, you have several options that may help keep them from unexpectedly entering.

1. If you’re concerned they might try to force an entry, you may greet them outside after exiting through another door.

2. You may speak with officers through the opening protected by your chain lock.

3. If police come to your door and you don’t require their help, you may simply decline to answer the door at all. Unless they have a warrant, they will eventually leave.

Determine the Reason for the Visit

While you might not be pleased to have police at your door, it’s wise to treat them as you would any other unexpected visitor. Calmly and respectfully ask, “How can I help you?”

In many cases, an officer’s visit will have little to do with you or be something you can easily fix. For example, an officer may be seeking information about a crime committed in your neighborhood. Or she might be responding to a noise complaint. If so, it’s wise to apologize for the inconvenience, then turn down the music or bring in your barking dog from the backyard.

In other instances, an officer might want to investigate activities taking place in your home and ask to enter. You might even be a suspect in a criminal investigation. In such a case you should remain silent — except to say “Officer, I can’t let you inside without a search warrant.” Following such an encounter, you should immediately contact a lawyer before speaking to police again.

Educate Friends & Family

As is often the case, a naïve friend, family member, or roommate may invite police into your home. They too should be aware of their right to refuse police entry.

Can someone else consent to a search of my property?

This depends on the circumstances. The Supreme Court has ruled that any occupant of a residence can refuse consent, even if other roommates agree to a search. Unfortunately, you must be present in order to assert your refusal. For this reason, it’s important to make sure that your roommates understand their 4th Amendment rights in case something happens when you’re not around. You may want to talk to your roommates about how to handle police visits and reach an agreement about how to handle such situations just in case.

As a general rule, police can obtain consent to search from anyone with control over the property. Someone who has a key, or whose name appears on the lease, can legally consent to a search of the property if no one else is present, or if no one else objects. If you rent the property, be advised that your landlord can also let the police in.

Finally, keep in mind that the courts often determine your “expectation of privacy” on a case-by-case basis. Keeping your room locked and maintaining control of your personal space can help protect you if a roommate ever lets police in. If your room is off-limits to your roommates and their friends, courts will often rule that it is off-limits to police as well.

What Are My Rights in a College Dorm?

College students suffer from an unfortunate lack of privacy rights in many situations. Dorms are the property of the university, thus school officials and campus police tend to feel a sense of entitlement with regards to entering student housing. Nevertheless, knowing and asserting your rights can help protect you on campus just as it would anywhere else.

The rental agreement for your dorm room should specify when school officials may and may not enter, so make sure you’re familiar with the terms of your lease and keep a copy on hand. In many cases, student housing affords less privacy protection than a standard rental agreement, so be mindful of the potential for random inspections and other intrusions that are common on college campuses.

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