Knock knock. Who's there? It's the police and they'd like to do a search of your home.
Wait, that's not a joke and it's certainly not funny. Dealing with cops at the door is something most everyone wants to avoid. But once the cops have shown up at your house, is there anything you can do about it?
There's always something you can do when it comes to police interaction, even if it's just remembering what happens in order to tell your lawyer later. But whether police can search your home depends on what's happening.
The Fourth Amendment happily gives us protection against the unwarranted search and seizure of our belongings. That protection is strongest on private property, like in a home.
But unwarranted doesn't just mean "without a warrant." It requires that police have a reason to search, and courts have defined what reasons are acceptable.
Having a warrant to search your home gives police the broadest right to conduct a search. That's because to get the warrant, they already had to show a judge that there is probable cause.
By probable cause, that means there's reason to believe someone in the house should be arrested or that the property contains evidence of a crime.
If police can establish that, a judge will issue a warrant. With that document, the police have a right to search your property for whatever the warrant describes.
But even without a warrant, police can search your home in four specific circumstances that courts have outlined.
- When police have your permission. If an officer asks to come in and do a search, and you or someone else who lives in the house says yes, there's little you can do. Even if you aren't there and your roommate lets the police in, it's still a legal search.
- Something is in plain view. If police can see illegal activity or unlawful items, like drugs or weapons, from their vantage point while standing outside your house, they can go in and search the property.
- Pursuant to arrest. Right after someone is arrested, police can search the area for weapons, evidence, and accomplices. If you're arrested at home, that means police can do a reasonable search of the property.
- During an emergency. Like most legal provisions, there's an exception for emergencies. If someone's life or health is in danger, or police are in "hot pursuit" of a suspect, then they can search the house as part of that investigation.
If there's no warrant and it's not one of the last three situations, you don't have to give police permission to do a search.
You have a legal right to politely decline when they ask to come in. And if something about a search seems strange, remember to tell your lawyer.
- The Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement (FindLaw)
- Can the Police Legitimately Search My Vehicle Without a Warrant? (FindLaw)
- Cops Don't Need Warrant to Search Cell Phones (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- When Can Police Conduct a Strip Search? (FindLaw's Blotter)