You get a knock on the door, and open it to see two police officers. They tell you they have reason to believe that you have illegal drugs inside your home, and that they would like to take a look around to clear it up. Should you let them inside to search your house? And does the law require you to?
The answer to both those questions is no. This situation is what’s known as a “knock and talk,” or a search without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches like this, but many citizens unknowingly waive that protection, believing that it’s better to simply agree to what the police are asking.
Here’s how one of these knock and talk police searches typically works – it starts with the police receiving information. Police departments get tips all the time, often through anonymous tip lines, calls to the station or people visiting the station in person. When the tip is related to a possible crime, such as drug possession, occurring in someone’s home, the police will then go to the home to check it out.
To legally search your home, the police need a search warrant or probable cause, unless you consent to the search. Since they won’t have either of these just because of a tip, they’ll try the knock and talk method to obtain your consent. They’ll go to your front door, knock, and if you answer, they’ll try to start a conversation with you. It’s important to remember that police officers do this all the time, so they’re very skilled in getting occupants to allow them to conduct searches. They may introduce themselves, explain that they received information about possible drug possession or distribution at your household, and then ask if they can come inside for a search.
By agreeing to this, you’re giving police the legal authority to come into your home and search every inch of it. If they do find anything illegal during their search, they can then confiscate it, arrest you and use what they found as evidence against you in court. That’s why you need to tell them no, you don’t consent to any police searches.
They will likely be persistent and try to convince you that it’s better for you if you consent to a search. They could say that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t have any problem with letting them conduct a search, or tell you that it will be better if you consent to a search now instead of making them get a warrant and come back. The reality is that there’s no difference between the type of search that they’ll conduct with a warrant and if you provide consent. Claiming they will obtain a warrant is just another way for them to convince you to give up your Constitutional protection. That’s why you should keep the conversation short. Tell them you don’t consent to a search, and then end the conversation there. You should also consider talking to a lawyer, that way you can instruct the police to talk to your lawyer about any search requests.
Now, there are two situations where the police can come into your home without a warrant. One is if there’s an emergency that causes an officer to enter your home. The other is what’s called a plain view seizure. This is when there’s something illegal in your home that a police officer can see from the door. For example, if there was a bag of cocaine on the living room table, the police can seize that from your home, arrest you for possession and use the contraband as evidence when prosecuting you.
If you have given police your consent to search your home, you are able to withdraw your consent, as long as you do so before they find anything illegal. However, it’s much smarter to avoid giving them consent in the first place. If they don’t have a warrant with them, there’s no reason to let them come in and search your home.