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Police at the Door

By on Jul 5, 2012 | 1 comment

A while back I wrote a popular blog post “How To Interact with the Police,” dealing with appropriate behavior when you get pulled over by the police while driving. Today’s post is the complement to that one, and deals with appropriate behavior when police come knocking on your door.

My original title for this post was going to be “Enemy at the Gates,” but I decided that was unnecessarily confrontational. A police officer at the door isn’t always a bad thing. Police do have an important role in protecting society and keeping the peace. However, the police can also give someone a lot of trouble and expense. My advice today recommends wariness, not hostility.

So, what do you do when the police come to your door? That depends why they’re there in the first place. There are three common reasons you have the police at the door.

  1. You called the police

There are a bunch of reasons to call the police. A few statutes impose a duty to contact the police, but generally speaking you may call the police if you’re the victim of a crime, or witness one.

Regarding those statutes, some require you to call the police, e.g. Hit and Run. That law requires you, if you’re in a car accident and not able to exchange information at the scene of an accident, to call the local police department and give your personal information to them. While you have no obligation to talk about the facts of the accident, e.g. whether you were speeding or texting or drinking, you do have an obligation to at least provide your driver’s license and insurance info. And if an officer comes to your door to take that information, you’re well served to give it to them.

A wariness of the police is understandable, but you should never let that stop you from staying safe. If you’re facing domestic violence or some other serious issue, call 911 and let the cops do their job when they come. Even if there are some items in the house you’d rather the police not see, like drugs or stolen property, the likelihood is they won’t arrest you since they do want people to call 911 if they’re in danger. Either way though, worry about your safety first and that stuff later.

If you’re the victim of a property crime, like property destruction or theft, it behooves you to call the police and make a report. There are a number of good reasons for this. For one, it’s your best chance of reclaiming your stuff. Two, many insurance companies won’t process your claim without a police report to back up your version of events. And three, reporting crimes help the police prevent this from happening to someone else.

Similar to that, don’t be afraid to be a witness to a crime, especially one that impacts other people like theft or assault. If you were the victim of a crime, it’s certainly how you would want your neighbors to act.

Now with all that, why else would the police come to your home?

  1. They have a warrant

A warrant is an authorization for the police to do something or take something, issued by a magistrate and based upon probable cause. Normally the police cannot go inside your home, take a swab of your DNA, or arrest you without some basis. A warrant authorizes the police to conduct that search or make that arrest.

When the police have a warrant to search your home or make an arrest, your choices are very limited. A judge or magistrate has already determined there is a logical reason for the action to take place. As such, you are well-advised not to get in their way.

The reason for this is twofold. First, if there is a problem with the warrant, the best way to deal with it is in court with a Seattle criminal defense lawyer. After all, just because an item is found doesn’t mean the evidence will stand up in court and be shown to a jury. And just because a person is arrested doesn’t mean they’ll be charged or convicted. But that’s a job for the lawyers down the road.

The second reason not to get in their way is that additional crimes and penalties come into play if you hinder the police from executing their warrant. Depending how you goes about it, you could be charged with Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer, Tampering or Destruction of Evidence, or even Assault 3. It could be a felony charge and prosecutors and judges do not look at these sorts of crimes favorably. In addition, you can still be charged with one of those crimes even if the underlying warrant is later found invalid. So it really behooves you to just stay still and let the police finish their task. This doesn’t mean helping them out by say unlocking a safe or answering questions. But it does mean not creating obstacles or threats.

How do you know if the police at your door have a warrant? First Washington has “knock and announce” rules, meaning the police cannot come battering into a home without first announcing their presence. Police are required to give the resident time to answer the door before breaking it down.

You are of course not required to open the door. But beware that if the police rip your door of its hinges or tear apart your home in executing their warrant, they are generally not required to reimburse you for your costs. So I personally would go to the door and talk to them.

They’ll likely tell you why they are there. Then you can ask “Hey, cool, you want to come inside and search my pad. Do you happen to have a warrant?” If they don’t, look at point 3 below. If they do, they’ll tell you and then they’ll come inside and do their business. Sometimes they have to show you, sometimes they don’t, but if the police are randomly lying about having a warrant they’ll be in huge trouble. Again, if they say have a warrant, I’d simply stay out of their way.

Now let’s say you have music playing and you don’t hear the police knock and announce their presence. If you happen to find the police bursting into your home, your first thought should be safety. That means staying on the ground, no sudden movements, etc. The police are very concerned about their own safety here. If you have any pets, let the police know; there’s a bad habit of officers shooting pets, for safety reasons, while executing warrants (a Google search for “police shoot dog search warrants” returns 2.1 million hits). Admittedly your position is very poor: the officers are going into a completely unknown situation, their adrenaline is pumping, and they’re most concerned about safety. The best you can do is tell the officer who detains you where all the live bodies are and hope the rest of the team gets the message.

If police are there to help you out or if they have a warrant, you should probably facilitate access to your home, because the consequences for not doing so can be unfortunate. Just use some common sense here. But is there a time when you shouldn’t let them come on in?

  1. The police are investigating your home for grounds to charge you with a crime.

When police are coming by to investigate you or your home and don’t have a warrant, you are vulnerable to being charged with a crime.. Just like when you’re pulled over by the police, this is a situation that, if not handled well, can create trouble down the road.

The Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment (and their State equivalents) provide protection when dealing with the police in almost any situation, including home visits. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment protects a citizen from being compelled to speak to an officer. What this means is that the police cannot search your home, unless they have a warrant or unless you give them permission to do so. Further, the police cannot make you answer their questions no matter what, unless you voluntarily talk to them.

All this means is that when the police come to your door, you are not required to invite them in, or even answer their questions. If they come knocking, you’re welcome to ask them what they want and if they have a warrant.. If they ask you to turn the stereo down, you probably should, if only to avoid a noise ordinance complaint. If they want to go root around your cushions for drugs, I’d politely tell them to get a warrant and shut the door.

Although the Fifth Amendment stuff means that you’re not obligated to talk, if you do speak with the police, you are obligated to tell the truth. Lying can be a crime, even if whatever the police talk to you about doesn’t amount to any charges. Since you don’t want to have to prove you were telling the truth when you talk to the police, just stay silent so your words don’t come back to bite you later. But ultimately there are no exceptions that force you to talk to the police.

The Fourth Amendment works a little differently. There are a variety of exceptions to the warrant requirement that allow police to enter your home and search it, even without a warrant or without your permission. Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, as it’s called, has changed a lot over the last few decades. Courts have repeatedly expanded or contracted the scope of these exceptions. For purposes of today’s post I’ll give three common exceptions to the warrant requirement (there are others).

  • Permission: No constitutional protection exists if you waive it. If the police politely ask your permission to search somewhere, politely decline to give it. In apartment buildings, the common area essentially belongs to every tenant and to the landlord, so any person living there or the landlord can allow the police into the building. However, only a leaseholder (not even the landlord) can allow the police into their individual apartment. Houses work similarly, so make sure your teenagers know not to let the police into the home under normal circumstances.
  • Destruction of evidence: Police are allowed to enter your home without your permission if in doing so they can prevent the destruction of evidence. This exception is somewhat limited to evidence relating to what the police are investigating in the first place, but nonetheless it is an avenue for the police to enter. This might come up if the police see or know about drugs in the building, and upon coming to the front door see people using those drugs inside. They can come inside to prevent those drugs from being “destroyed,” and then seize them and arrest the people involved.
  • Exigent circumstances/Community caretaking: These amount to the same thing, namely that police can enter a home in emergencies or when people are in danger. They don’t need permission or a warrant to put out a fire, save someone’s life, etc. This one can be pretty broad, so you’re advised to tell your guests not to be throwing up or getting into fights while the police are at the door, to prevent the appearance of a medical emergency.

Given these exceptions, the longer that the police are at your door, talking to you or looking inside, the more likely they’ll be able to justify coming in. If you don’t want that to happen, there are a couple of ways to handle matters.

The first is to talk to the police outside through a door chain. The police can show you their badge and any papers they have, but they’re unlikely to see much of the interior. This makes it less likely for them to see actions by other residents or guests that would justify a warrantless entry. In addition there’s no question with a chain in place that the police do not have permission to enter.

The other option is to go outside and shut the door behind you. This again unequivocally tells the police they are not welcome inside, and blocks their view of your home. While it may seem like you’re exposing yourself by leaving, keep in mind if the police have enough evidence to arrest you, they can always get a warrant. As long as you don’t answer questions, talking to them outside won’t make you any more vulnerable.

What about just not answering the door if the police come knocking? Some professionals advocate for this position, but I don’t like it. For one, remember that if they have a warrant the police can just break down the door. Secondly, there’s no danger in listening to what the police have to say; the only concern is having a conversation. You don’t have to give the police what they want, but if it is really innocuous, e.g. turning down the music, it can’t hurt to be cooperative.

But perhaps most importantly, not answering the door can be used against you in subsequent charges. Police are welcome to testify that they came to the door and they heard scurrying inside and saw someone shimmying down a crude rope made of tied-together pillowcases, and let the jury draw from that what they will. But if you come to the door and simply stay silent? Police are absolutely forbidden from testifying that someone didn’t answer their questions.

It’s clear that police at the door can be a stressful or dangerous experience. But with some common sense and a clear head, you can minimize any potential criminal impact of a social visit. Be polite, listen attentively, keep their view minimized, and above all, stay quiet. And if the worst happens and you get arrested, feel free to call an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you out.

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  • Jeff Phillips

    Noah-

    Once again, thanks for these amazing blogs!

    My question is this: I was served with a speeding ticket at my home. The circumstances are that I was allegedly speeding, but another vehicle next to me was also allegedly speeding. The officer pulled that gentleman over, and then served me at my house later that day. Unfortunately, I was less versed in this articular area than in traffic stop, and although I said nothing, he gave me a speeding ticket.

    Can you expound on this particular circumstance, as it seems to be somewhat outside the listed situations.

    Cheers!

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