If one day the police show up at your door, what do you do? What can you do?
For many people, that can be a pretty stressful situation — especially considering that you may not know why they’re there in the first place.
There are many reasons why the police may be at your door, such as a wellness check, a neighborhood survey for information about a crime in the area, or responding to a 911 call. The reason matters. For example, if the police have a warrant, how you need to respond is very different than if they don’t.
“If they have a warrant, you have to open the door,” says civil rights attorney Riley H. Ross III. “If you don’t open the door, then they can take that door down and come into your home.”
But what if it’s a “knock and talk”? That is an investigative technique in which police knock on your door and request to enter your home or ask you questions in order to gain more information about a case. It is generally used if police believe you are involved in criminal conduct but don’t believe they have enough information to get a warrant, says David Rudovsky, a civil rights attorney and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
“Yes, the police have the right — not randomly, but pretty broadly — to do this ‘knock and talk’ if they’ve got some reason to think that the people inside are engaged in criminal conduct,” Rudovsky says. But just as they have that right, you have certain rights in the situation, too.
If you feel comfortable speaking with the police, that is an option. But if you don’t feel comfortable, you may wonder what your rights and obligations are in that situation.
Do you need to open the door to police, or even speak to them? And can they come into your home? Here are some things to consider:
Do I need to open my door if police knock?
Not always. If police have a warrant, or there are compelling conditions known as “exigent circumstances” (more on that later), you do. But if police are at your door for most other purposes, then police are “like anyone who knocks at your door,” and you’re not legally required to open up, says Jules Epstein, a professor of law and director of advocacy programs at the Temple University Beasley School of Law. That approach, Rudovsky adds, also likely applies to “any government official,” such as immigration officers or the FBI.
Ask why they are there. “Unless you called the police, or you think there’s some good reason why the police are there to help you — and you can certainly inquire — you don’t have to open your door,” Rudovsky says. “You can say, ‘What are you looking for? What do you want?’ and ‘I don’t need your help. Please go away.’”
If you do open the door, it may come with some risks, Rudovsky says. For police can seize illegal items and charge you for having them if they are in “plain view,” such as illegal drugs on a table that can be seen from the door, or if the officers are legally in your space.
If you feel scared in this situation, that is normal
Deciding what to do in the moment can be difficult — particularly for people of color, says Ebony White, an assistant clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions of Drexel University, whose research focuses on how individual and systemic racism impacts people, family, and communities of color. For many people of color, she says, seeing or dealing with police can create “a physiological response” because of the stress of the situation, as well as prolonged, collective trauma.
“There’s a mistrust of law enforcement by Black people, and within Black communities, because even though the model is often to serve and protect, we’ve witnessed in our communities a disruptive and violent presence,” White says. “For a long time, even though on the books we have rights, those rights haven’t been protected or respected.”
Still, she says, you should “do what you can to lean into your rights,” and stay present in the moment. Ross, meanwhile, says that the importance of asserting your rights — such as by declining to open the door — is “universal, especially in communities of color when there’s concern about your rights being violated.”
Do I have to speak to the police?
You generally are not required to speak with police. But there are things you can do to feel safer speaking with them, including:
Going outside to speak to them.
Speaking through the door.
The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, suggests speaking through a door, but only to ask if the officers have a warrant, or to decline speaking with them directly.
“You can tell them, ‘I don’t want to speak with you, and I’d like for you to get off of my property’ — and there’s nothing wrong with you saying that,” Ross says. “You could say whatever you like that conveys the fact that you don’t want to open the door.”
You can also choose to be silent and not interact because, as Ross puts it, “you don’t have to speak to the police,” and you have the right to remain silent. Ultimately, the choice depends on the circumstances of the situation, and how comfortable you feel with speaking to the authorities.
“I don’t see that [being silent] would constitute a crime if they don’t have a warrant to be in your home,” Ross says. “Now, here’s the other thing, though: You’ve got to be careful that you don’t do something that creates exigent circumstances. If all your lights are on, and you were just moving about, and [the police] knocked on the door, it could be something they use to build a case against you as to why they should come into the home.”
In deciding how to respond, White suggests that you “think about what your ultimate goal is,” and do what you think is appropriate to work toward achieving that goal. That is an important distinction for people of color, White says, because “there is a certain way in which we have to interact with the police” to keep situations from escalating.
“Is feeling respected your ultimate goal? Is being alive your ultimate goal? Is it feeling heard?” she asks. “For most of us, we want to be alive, and oftentimes that means doing what we can to comply and be perceived as nonthreatening.”
Do I have to let police in my house?
In many cases, no. The Fourth Amendment gives people the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” So, generally, in order to come in or search your home without your consent, police need to get a warrant — and if they don’t have one and ask for your consent to search instead, you can say no.
But if they do have a warrant, or exigent circumstances exist, it’s another story.
“When police knock and say they have a warrant, they have the right to come in. And if you don’t open the door, they may have the right to force the door open,” Epstein says. So, in that case, you need to answer in a reasonable amount of time — otherwise, they likely can kick your door in. But, the ACLU notes online, you do have the right to read the warrant.
What are exigent circumstances?
Exigent circumstances give the police the ability to enter your home with neither your consent nor a warrant in situations where getting a warrant would be impractical. While the definition can be complicated, generally, exigent circumstances are when police need to enter your home for a specific reason, including:
To prevent physical harm to the officers themselves or others.
To keep relevant evidence in a crime from being destroyed.
To prevent a suspect from escaping.
To continue the “hot pursuit” of a suspect.
This can sometimes be complicated, Rudovsky says, because in some cases police have “created that exigency” to go in. Generally, he adds, the Supreme Court has ruled that sometimes “exigencies are validly created,” and police can come in if your response “creates more suspicion,” he adds. That could mean continuous flushing of toilets (which may mean drug evidence being destroyed) or the sounds of people trying to get out a back window.
What if I feel like my rights have been violated?
If you feel your rights have been violated, or that you have been mistreated in an interaction with police at your home, there are steps you can take.
Document what happened. “The best things to do are document it while they are there, or immediately thereafter. Talk to neighbors and get their accounts immediately thereafter while it is fresh in people’s minds,” Epstein says. That can be done by filming with a cell phone, talking through what happened into a recording app, or simply writing the information down. The ACLU suggests taking down the names and badge numbers of any officers involved.
If you want to make a complaint. In Philadelphia, you can file a complaint with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, or the Police Advisory Commission (though that will soon be replaced by another entity). Epstein also suggests speaking with a city council member, a block captain, or a local religious leader to help organize your complaint and have your voice heard. And in some situations, legal action may also be appropriate.
White also suggests speaking with available community groups about your interaction, or, if there are none in your area, forming one. Counseling, she says, can also be helpful in maintaining “a semblance of sanity while going through this insanity.”
But what is not advisable if you feel your rights are being violated, Ross says, is resisting in the moment by force. If, for example, police are pushing in your door to come in with your consent, a warrant, or exigent circumstances, pushing back or physically resisting can result in a worse situation.
“You can assert your rights and say that an officer doesn’t have the right to come into your home, but just be careful not to do anything that’s going to lead to further problems for you,” Ross says. “Don’t hit the officer, because that’s going to result in assault. If they’re violating your rights, it’s something that is going to have to be worked out in court with a lawyer in order to right that wrong that they’re doing.”
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Riley H. Ross III, JD, civil rights attorney and partner at Philadelphia law firm Mincey Fitzpatrick Ross.
Ebony White, Ph.D., licensed professional counselor and assistant clinical professor at the College of Nursing and Health Professions of Drexel University.
David Rudovsky, JD, civil rights attorney and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
·Jules Epstein, JD, professor of law and director of advocacy programs at the Temple University Beasley School of Law.