When The Cops Come Knocking Do You Have To Let Them In?
It’s a regular Wednesday night, nothing out of the ordinary. You are enjoying a delicious family dinner when suddenly your steak, potatoes, and asparagus feast is interrupted by a loud knock at the door. “Open up, itt’s the police!” Surprised, you open up the door and the cops inform you that a neighbor called and reported a loud disturbance from your house. You assure the cops, who can clearly see your family enjoying dinner from the cracked door, that nothing is wrong. Still, the cops want to come in. Do you have to let them inside your home?
Celebrities in the Los Angeles area are sadly faced with this scenario as a result of “swatting” incidents. Swatting is a hoax; someone falsely reports a crime to police using caller ID technology to make the call appear as if it is coming from inside the celebrity’s home. The swat team is then deployed to the home where the incident is reported. Ashton Kutcher, Chris Brown, Tom Cruise, and Ryan Seacrest are among Hollywood’s most swatted. But when the cops show up to the Cruise estate and Tom promises that anything but Mission Impossible activity is taking place inside, what happens if the cops still ask to come in? Does he have to let them inside of his home?
Knowing your 4th Amendment rights sure would come in handy. The 4th Amendment of the Bill of Rights states the following:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Essentially, the 4th Amendment says government officers may not unlawfully search our homes or unlawfully take possession of our property. Our right to privacy and security in our home and property is rooted in rebellion against the kingdoms from which our founders immigrated from. Back then English rulers had the right to enter homes of lower ranked citizens and seize their property at will. America’s founders wanted to change this, and they did so via the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution.
The key phrase in the 4th Amendment text to determine when you have the legal right to deny the cops entry into your home is “probable cause.” To have probable cause for an arrest means there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed by the person suspected of the crime. Probable cause for a search means there is a reasonable basis for believing that evidence of the crime is or should be present in the place to be searched. If a warrant is issued, that means a judge or magistrate has determined that the information in the warrant justifies probable cause to make an arrest or search a home (or other location) for evidence of a crime. If police show up to your door with a warrant giving them permission to enter your home, you must let them in!
However, there are exceptions to the rule, even in the case of our Bill of Rights. It is unreasonable to always require police to obtain a warrant to gather evidence, enter a home, or make an arrest. Warrants take time, research, and you must find a judge to sign it. Imagine if your car was stolen and you clearly saw the thief park it in the Publix parking lot while he shopped for groceries. If you told a nearby officer what happened, in the time it would take to get an arrest warrant the car thief would already be enjoying a bowl of cereal at his home. Or imagine if your home was broken into. Thankfully, you locked the basement door and trapped the intruder. It would be pretty nonsensical if cops still needed a warrant to enter your home as your basement housed a real, live threat. Right?
Such circumstances where obtaining a warrant is unreasonable are called exigencies. A determination of an exigency is subject to the officers’ judgment. For example, if officers were outside of a house and saw drugs being burned and flushed down the toilet, the imminent destruction of criminal evidence would give officers a necessary exigency to enter the home, arrest the perpetrators, and seize the drugs. However, if a court later determines that the officer’s supposed exigency did not establish probable cause, evidence obtained may be deemed inadmissible; our legal system does not want to reward officers for unconstitutional behavior, even at the expense of forfeiting incriminating evidence. Also, any victims of an unlawful search or seizure could bring a lawsuit for the violation of their constitutional rights.
Circling back to the original question – do you have to let the cops in when they come knocking? In light of everything discussed, the answer is really “it depends.” Apologies for such a sub-climactic answer, but as seen a variety of factors are in play when determining whether or not officers of the law may enter your home. Knowing your constitutional rights does not make you a legal scholar, nor does it give you the right to get sassy with police during confrontations. However, knowing your rights may protect the privacy of your home and prevent its unlawful entry. Your home is your castle. You have the right to protect it.