A knock at the door – law enforcement stands waiting. Should people open the door? Should they talk to the officers? Once inside people’s private homes, the authorities may discover incriminating evidence to use in charging them with crimes.
Understanding their rights when law enforcement shows up at their doors may help people protect themselves and their futures.
Entering a private residence
Generally speaking, under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, law enforcement must have a search warrant or consent to enter people’s homes without permission. When asking to enter residences without a valid search warrant, the authorities attempt to obtain consent. This involves law enforcement requesting entry in a way that makes the residents feel as though they cannot say no. However, under the Fourth Amendment, people have the right to not allow law enforcement into their homes to search or talk. Instead, they may opt to not speak to the authorities or to talk to them through their doors.
Exceptions to this Rule: Exigent Circumstances such as pursuing a suspect or imminent danger
There are limited exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition to entering a home without a warrant or consent. Generally those exceptions involve “exigent circumstances.” This means, when law enforcement believes there is a set of circumstances that are so critical or time sensitive, law enforcement are not required to obtain a warrant. The classic examples of exigent circumstances are when law enforcement are pursuing a suspect or believe someone is in imminent danger, such that they are going to hurt themselves or someone else.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a case involving the pursuit of a suspect and entering a home without a warrant. The high court determined that when chasing those suspected of committing a misdemeanor offense, law enforcement can only enter homes without search warrants in emergency cases and when time does not permit them to obtain the necessary permission from the court.
Searches of people’s homes may turn up evidence the authorities will use against them, sending their lives in directions they never anticipated. However, a solid defense against the charges they face may include questioning the legality of the search, which may result in the court throwing out illegally obtained evidence.