The Police Are at Your Door
One of the most frequent questions we get is “Do I have to let cops in my house if they knock on my door and tell me they need to come inside?”. The short answer: NO. You don’t even need to open the door. This applies only to visits without a warrant.
This rule applies to any agent from any law enforcement agency, whether local, state, or federal. This includes: the FBI, ATF, ICE, LAPD, Los Angeles Sheriff, Special Agents, Detectives, etc, whether they are working as law enforcement, uniformed or plain clothes or off-duty.
In most cases, an officer’s visit will have little to do with you. They may have some questions for someone that they believe lives at the residence, but if you happen to be the person they are looking for, you are under no obligation to open the door, answer questions or let them inside.
Do Not Let Them Inside
If the police are at your door, you have a few options depending on seriousness of their visit:
- If the police knock on your door and you didn’t call them or need their assistance, you can simply decline to answer the door. Unless they have a warrant, they will eventually leave.
- You can talk with the officers through a cracked door protected by a chain lock. Calmly and respectfully ask, “How can I help you?”.
- If you think that they might try to force entry with probable cause or a warrant, you may exit through another door, and greet them outside.
They Have No Warrant or Probable Cause
Fourth Amendment Rights
Police cannot just come into people’s homes at will in California. There must be lawful consent to enter from a person with the authority to let the police into the house. If they do not have a search warrant (or arrest warrant), the police cannot enter a home without valid consent from a homeowner or lawful resident.
They may also enter if there is ‘probable cause’ to enter the residence in the form of illegal activity of any kind that they witness. A police officer doesn’t need a warrant to seize evidence that is “in plain view” when they are ‘legitimately in the area’ where the evidence is first spotted.
Illegal Search and Seizure
If the police ask to come into your residence. and you say ‘no you cannot come in’, they are legally prohibited from entering your home. If they choose to ignore your refusal and enter the home, any evidence they find inside the home will be inadmissible in court due to it being an ‘illegal search and seizure’.
Parents and Roommates
If the police knock on your door and tell you they need to talk to your child, you are not obligated to let them into your house. Ask the officers if they have a warrant to enter your home. If they have a warrant, they must produce a copy of the warrant on paper and hand it to you. If they do not have a warrant, simply tell them sorry, but they cannot enter. The same rules apply if you live with roommates and the police show up looking for one of your roommates.
They Have a Warrant
Police Present a Search Warrant
A warrant is an authorization issued by a judge or magistrate of the state, for the police to take an action or take evidence. The warrant needs to be based upon probable cause. The police cannot go inside your home, car or property, or take a swab of your DNA, or arrest you without some basis for such actions. Your privacy is protected by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
If police have a warrant to search your residence or arrest a lawful resident living on your property, your choices are limited. A judge has already determined there is a logical reason for the search and/or arrest. Ask the officers if they have a warrant to enter your home.
If they have the warrant, they must produce a copy of the warrant on paper and hand it to you.
Exceptions to Enter Without Warrant
The Fourth Amendment provides the backdrop to all entries into homes and dwellings, as well as any other governmental search, such as search of your vehicle. The most common exceptions to the requirement of a warrant to enter your home are:
- You Give Them Permission: You essentially waive your constitutional protection if you tell them they are allowed inside to search. It’s best to politely decline entry if the police ask your permission to search somewhere. In the case of an apartment building, any person living there can allow the police into the building’s common areas. However, to enter an individual apartment, only the leaseholder of that unit can allow the police inside. Even the landlord and the owner are not allowed to let the police into apartment units.
- Destruction of evidence: Police are allowed to enter your home without your permission if in doing so they can prevent the destruction of evidence relating to an open investigation that the police are already investigating in the first place. An example is if the police see or know about illegal drug manufacturing in the building, and upon coming to the front door see suspicious equipment. They can come inside to prevent those drugs from being “destroyed,” and then seize the equipment.
- Exigent circumstances/Community caretaking: Basically this means that the 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, or save someone’s life. This law is fairly broad, so you’re advised not to be getting sick or fighting while the police are at the door, or presenting any situation that could be construed as an emergency.
- Plain View Doctrine / Probable Cause: The police have probable cause when they have observed something in plain view that is illegal or illegal contraband. In this case, they have the legal right to enter and seize that item and make an arrest. This is frequent when an item is in plain view through a window or when people open the front door of their residence during a “knock and talk”. If the officer observes an illegal item in plain view, then that gives the officer the legal right to enter and seize the item. It’s common when a person answers the front door when they are having a party and the officer sees several people at the party who appear to be under the age of 21 consuming alcohol. This gives the officer probable cause to enter the residence and investigate the possibility of minor in possession of alcohol.
During the incident, it may be beneficial to video document, or otherwise document the events, regardless of whether the police have a warrant or not.
After an incident, you may want to write down the details of what happened. Include the date, time, location, the people present, the agencies involved, the badge numbers of the officers, the names they mentioned, the questions they asked, the items they seized, and any damages, injuries, or other details.
Were You Arrested for a Crime?
If you have any questions about police visits, warrants, illegal search and seizures, or you feel your rights have been violated in any way, do not hesitate to contact our experienced criminal defense team for a free case review.
Call Us: 310-274-6529
Seppi Esfandi is an expert in Criminal Law who has over 17 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.