What to do when the police are at your door

Published on
May 10, 2023

The police are knocking on your door. Maybe you’re holding a party that may have gotten a bit loud. Maybe you have no idea why the police are out there. Whatever the case, you need to think quickly and respond carefully if you want to avoid major trouble. What do you do? The answer depends on whether the police have a warrant or they’re just doing a “knock and talk.”

If they have a warrant

A warrant is a signed authorization from a judge that establishes the rights of the police to enter your home for whatever purpose is given on the warrant (and only that purpose). If the police have one, you have to open the door. If you don’t, they can (and probably will) break it down. Your next move should probably include invoking your right to remain silent until you can phone a criminal defense attorney and get representation.

If this is just a “knock and talk”

If the police don’t have a warrant, the situation is usually described as a “knock and talk.” Maybe they want you to turn down your music -- or maybe they’re using it as an investigation tactic. Surely, they can’t step through your door unless you let them, right? Well, not exactly. There are exceptions to the rules that make your home your castle, and that includes the following:

  • Exigent circumstances: This means the police have a reasonable belief that a crime is in progress or someone was about to be physically harmed. A playful shriek from one of your guests who is horsing around, for example, could be mistaken as a scream for help.
  • The plain view doctrine: This means that there’s something in plain view of the officer that is likely to be illegal -- like a stash of drugs or weapons.

Opening your door just a crack could give officers everything they need to walk right through -- and you could end up arrested as a result. How can you protect yourself? Ask through the door what the officers want -- or exit through another door and walk around to meet them (but only if you choose). You’re under no obligation to accommodate the request to answer their knock. The more you know about your legal rights, the easier it is to participate in your own defense.

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