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.1
No person shall be ... compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself[.]2
But if you got a warrant, I guess you're gonna come in.3
What should you do when the police are at your door? And do they have a search warrant? Those question are best answered with another: why are the police at your door? There are three likely reasons.
You called them yourself
Sometimes you have to call the police. You yourself may be in trouble. Someone may need medical attention. If you call an ambulance, the police will often show up as well. Some laws even require you to call the police.
If you're the victim of a property crime, such as theft, your insurance company may require a police report before they will reimburse you for the stolen items. If you witness a crime, your report may be the only lead the police have to go on! Your neighbors will certainly appreciate your help.
There are, of course, less pleasant reasons the police may come to your door.
They have a search warrant or an arrest warrant
A warrant is a document that allows the police to do something, take something, or arrest someone. Warrants are issued by judges, and only after the police are able to tell the judge exactly why they think a search or seizure is justified. This has to be more than just "a hunch." For instance, the police cannot simply say "we heard from so-and-so that this guy is growing marijuana in his house." The police can, however, use a tip like this and, if the tipster is shown to be reliable to the judge, they may still get their warrant.
Without a search warrant, the police cannot come into your home. How this is decided is the stuff famous cases are made of. Bottom line: when the police show up at your door and they have a search warrant, you have very few options. Because a judge has already decided to issue the search warrant, now is not the time to question its validity or whether the police followed all of the rules. You should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to explore your rights and what, if anything, can be done. If the police were in the wrong when they searched your home, then your attorney can bring this to the attention of the court and a judge will toss out any evidence obtained during the illegal search.
If the police do come to your door, search warrant in hand, and start to search, you need to stay out of their way. You are not required to help them search, but you also cannot hinder their investigation. For instance, you cannot flush illegal substances down the toilet. This is called destruction of evidence, and may put you in a far worse position than you would have been if the police had simply found what you were trying to get rid of.
Some of the rules for warrants
Police are required to follow the "knock and announce" rule, meaning the police cannot simply break down your door without first announcing their presence. The police are required to give you time to answer the door. If the police feel there are "exigent circumstances" - Meaning pressing or demanding - such as furtive noises, rustling, shouting, or the sound of a toilet flushing, then they don't have to wait as long.
You don't have to open the door, but as Bob Weir sang, "if you've got a warrant I guess you're going to come in." Additionally, the police are not responsible for the damage they do if they have to force their way in.
Once you answer the door, they should tell you why they're there. You can then ask "do you have a warrant?" If they do, they should give you a copy, and they'll probably ask you to sit in the living room or wait outside or if they're concerned about their safety, they may place you in handcuffs. This does not necessarily mean, however, that you are under arrest.
Note: if the police come bursting into your home, try to stay calm! If you have any pets, let the police know. Cops have a bad habit of shooting pets. For officer safety, of course. (Most cops I know are animal lovers, so don't get the wrong idea about them. But all cops are concerned about safety.)
They are investigating you for a crime
The final reason the police may come to your door is if they are investigating a crime. In this situation, you need to be very careful.
The police have not yet obtained a warrant, so you don't have to be quite as cooperative. You should, however, still be polite. There are a number of procedural things the police can do to make your life a lot more difficult if you aren't nice to them.
Quoted above, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you against unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment protects you from being compelled to speak to an officer. We normally think of the Fifth Amendment as being something that comes up in court when a witness doesn't want to testify, but it also applies to your interaction with the police.
In other words, the police cannot search your home unless they have a warrant or you give them permission Erie it the police cannot force you to answer their questions, unless you voluntarily talk to them.
If the police do come to your door, and tell you why they're there, listen to what they're saying. For instance, if they are there about a noise complaint, they may ask you to turn your stereo down. You should do this, and then the police should be on their way. If at this point they asked to look around, you can politely suggest they get a warrant, wish them a good day, and close the door.
Although I always advise my clients against it, if you do decide to talk to the police, you have to tell the truth. Lying to the police is potentially a crime itself. But again, you're not required to talk to the police. A lot of people have put in a lot of effort to maintain your right to remain silent. Use it.
The police knocking on your door is a dangerous situation, and must be handled properly. Use your common sense. Be polite. Only say what you absolutely have to, and try not to answer any questions. If you do find yourself charged with a crime after a visit from the police, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
_____ 1U.S. Const. amend. IV. 2U.S. Const. amend. V, cl. 3. 3The Grateful Dead, Truckin' (American Beauty 1970).