What To Do When Police Knock On Your Door

Photo by Terence McCormack (License)

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down an important 4th Amendment decision reaffirming the age-old notion that your home is your castle. If you can rest assured you will be free from government intrusion anywhere on earth, it is there.

Photo by Terence McCormack (License)

The case was Florida v. Jardines, and had one of the oddest grouping of justices writing for the majority in recent memory: Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor for the majority.

In Jardines, detectives with the Miami-Dade Police Department went onto the front porch of a house they were investigating for possible drug activity.

Generally, there’s nothing wrong with a police officer going up to your door and knocking on it to try to speak with you. After all, any member of the public can knock on your door. That includes police officers.

What made the situation in Jardines different was that the cops brought Franky with them. Franky is a trained narcotics detection dog. The police set upon the porch, not to knock on the front door to try to speak with whoever was inside, but to see if the dog would “alert,” or indicate the potential presence of drugs.

According to his handler, Franky did indicate the presence of illegal drugs. Detectives then used that information to apply for a search warrant for the home. The warrant was issued, a search ensued and drugs were found in the home. Jardines was then charged with drug trafficking.

What Jardines’ future hinged on–and the central legal question in the case–was whether or not Franky’s trip onto the porch was a search. In law, “search” is a legal term of art. It is critically important because, if something is not a “search,” then the 4th Amendment (which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures) doesn’t offer any protection.

The Supreme Court decided it was indeed a search! It turns out the police can’t just bring a drug dog up to anyone’s front door to try to find “evidence” to justify a search warrant! You’re entitled to not just privacy in your home, but to privacy in the areas immediately surrounding your home.

What this means is that Franky the drug dog’s sniffing was a violation of the 4th Amendment. Since that violation of the 4th Amendment was what made the search warrant possible, all the evidence obtained from the search gets thrown out.

The Jardines’ decision is really a reflection of the importance of one’s home, and the right to be free from unwarranted intrusion by government agents.

After the Jardines’ decision, police are unlikely to come to anyone’s door with a drug dog to try to sniff out a little probable cause.

Bear in mind, the police can still come up to your door, even without a warrant, and knock on it.

What if a police officer appears at your door and knocks? What should you do?

If you read the prior post on tips for what to do when getting pulled over by a police officer, you now have a clear idea what to do in that situation. It might be helpful to point out a few facts regarding what to do if and when a police come to your door.

First, you aren’t required to answer the door! Unless the police have a search warrant, or you are on probation or parole, you are not required to speak with them. If you don’t want to answer the door, you don’t have to.

If you do want to answer the door and speak with them, remember that, in Kentucky, you can record any conversation that you’re a part of. If you have a tape recorder or an app on your phone that records sound, you can record whatever goes on between you and the officers.

Many times, police will ask to come inside. In the face of authority and afraid of seeming rude, many people will allow the police to come inside their homes. Once inside, the police–in addition to talking to you–will scan for anything in plain sight they can then use to justify getting a search warrant for your home.

You do not have to let them inside! If a police officer asks if they can come inside, you are within your rights to ask if they have a search warrant. Generally speaking, the only time a police officer has a legal right to enter your home is when they have a search warrant… UNLESS you let them in the door.

Remember: if they don’t have a search warrant, you don’t have to let them inside.

And, as with our tips on being pulled over, you will do best to always be polite, but firm and direct with the officers. Not like this UK student in the now-infamous video of his dealing with police at his door:

+Tucker Richardson

Tucker Richardson

Tucker Richardson

Tucker is a founding member and managing partner of Baldani, Rowland and Richardson. He practices in all areas of state and federal criminal defense, from capital murder defense to DUI defense. You can reach Tucker at 859-259-0727.
Tucker Richardson

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4 comments to What To Do When Police Knock On Your Door

  • Diana Colby

    Just to be clear if the police come knocking on your door in response to a complaint from a neighbor for noise do you have to answer the door? Can you tell them you are not going to talk to them? In this case it is clear there is no warrant but just a complaint, are you required to answer the door? Can you just sit inside your home and not say anything at all?

    • Tucker Richardson

      Hi Diana,

      You pose an interesting question. Normally, if the police come and knock on your door you do not have to answer it (unless they have a search warrant). But the situation you’re asking about might be a little different. Normally, of course, police officers need a warrant or your consent to come into your home. Without either of those, they can only make an entry if they have “exigent circumstances,” which loosely means an emergency situation. For example, if they’re chasing a thief and the thief runs into a home, they police don’t have to stop and go get a warrant. Under the hot pursuit doctrine, they can make the warrantless entry into the home because they are in hot pursuit.

      Making a lot of noise in a residential area may actually be another one of those situations. There is a case (United States v. Rohig) where the person did just what you said — police came to investigate a noise complaint, knocked on the door and the person did not answer (because he was drunk!) The court ended up saying that, in that sort of a circumstance, the officers were not unreasonable in making entry.

      So, if you’re having a loud party (or listening to your stereo at full blast) and you don’t answer the door, the police might come in anyway. In that circumstance, it might be best to talk to them and turn the music down. If you do open the door for police, you will always want to be mindful about what they can see and smell. If they can see or smell evidence of other illegal activity, you might be in a bit of hot water.

  • Missy

    Yesterday some people came knocking on my door. When I opened the door I saw they left a business card of the civic division of the local sheriff. I believe they were police (in plain clothes). What might this mean? Should I have answered the door and are they coming back?

  • […] recently posted an article about your 4th Amendment rights in Kentucky: what do you do when the police knock on your door? What is your obligation? What is […]

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