What to Do (and Not to Do) When a Cop Knocks on Your Door
Our homes are the center of our lives. They should be places of calm, places of safety – and the only place in our lives where our privacy reigns. We rest there, play there and work there more and more often. It is very important that our homes feel safe.
This sense of serenity and security is why the experience of the police knocking on your door is so devastating. Most people are a little confused about where their rights end and police powers begin, and the worst time to figure it out is when a few impatient cops are standing at your front door. Just like a traffic stop , your mind immediately wonders if you did something wrong, and then you worry that non-cooperation might hit you anyway. After all, we know that the police can lie to you quite widely , and when they knock on your door, you only have a few seconds to become aware of their presence and come up with a plan of action.
So, come up with a game plan right now . Fortunately, this is not difficult, because your rights and the limits of the powers of the police are actually very clear. So, what will you do if your workday is interrupted by the police at your front door?
Know your rights
First of all, keep in mind that you are not required to cooperate with the police. This is not an anti -cop position, it is a civil rights position. Private property in this country is inviolable. The whole point of a warrant—be it a search warrant or what is known as a Feeney warrant , giving the police the right to enter a home to arrest someone—is that the police must obtain special permission to enter a private home. You are not required to waive this privacy if the order is not in effect.
However, the police have the right to come to your house and knock on the door. No PRIVATE PROPERTY signs on your lawn prevent them from doing so. They should make themselves known, but again, you don’t have to answer, open the door, or do anything else. If the police have a warrant giving them permission to enter your home, they will do so with or without your cooperation, so it’s in your best interest to let them in, but it’s entirely up to you.
There are a few exceptions that allow the police to enter your home without a warrant:
- Likely cause. As with car searches, if the police have good reason to believe that a crime is being committed, they can break into your home without a warrant.
- Urgent circumstances. If the police believe someone is in imminent danger of harm, or if they believe evidence may be destroyed to prevent arrest, they may enter your home without a warrant. For example, if someone calls 9-1-1 from your home and the call is disconnected, the police have reason to enter without your permission. Note that this does not give the police the right to search your home inside – it still requires a warrant.
- Hot pursuit. If the cops are chasing a suspect and running away to your house, the police don’t have to stop at the front door. This is a rather narrow exception – it essentially means that the police witness the crime and go after the suspect directly. They can’t show up in a few hours and accuse you of harboring a criminal. Again, this prevents the police from searching your home during an arrest.
- Agreement. It’s complicated. If someone with “real authority” gives the police permission to enter, they can do so. Consent must be voluntary (without any coercion) and must be informed , i.e. the police must inform the person of his right to refuse. And the person giving consent must have the authority to do so. Some neighborhood kid wandering in from the playroom can’t just nod to the cops, which usually means they have to be the adult occupant of the house. Consent can also be interpreted as referring to seeking.
Conclusion: You don’t need to cooperate if the police come to your door. If they have a warrant, they will come anyway. If they don’t, it’s up to you whether you open the door, answer their questions, or interact with them in any way.
What to do
So what’s the scenario when the police suddenly show up at your door? Here is what you should do:
- Decide if you want to interact. You are not required to do so. You may choose not to respond in any way or communicate without opening the door. If you have a lawyer, consider calling him before doing anything.
- Ask them to introduce themselves. If you decide to answer, your first step is to simply ask who it is. Get them to identify themselves and tell you about their goal.
- Decide if you want to talk to the officers. Again, this is entirely up to you. While in most cases it’s probably wise to help the police (we live in a society after all), never forget that it’s always up to you. Inside your home, you have quite a lot of authority over how you spend your time. You can open the door and talk to the police, invite them inside, or go outside and close the door behind you to talk.
- Be polite and don’t resist. If the police want to ask you about something – like a noise complaint – it’s always in your best interest to be respectful. And if you refuse entry and the police do it anyway, don’t try to resist. At this point, it is not in your power – either they have good reasons for doing so, or you will have the opportunity to seek redress later through the appropriate channels.
Agreeing to speak to the police at your door does not mean agreeing to enter – and generally speaking, you should always keep the police out of your home. Again, it’s not because you’re secretly running a crime ring in your basement (is it?) or because you hate the police; it is simply because you are standing up for your rights as a citizen.
That being said, in most cases, a polite police knock on your door is probably a harmless situation where your cooperation as a citizen would be helpful. Just be mindful of your rights: When you go to the police, being a good citizen does not take away your privacy rights.