The Police Are Knocking At the Door: What Are Your Rights?

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October 20, 2009

By: Richard Brown

Police Search of your Residence

If you get a knock on your door, and find police officers on your doorstep asking to come in so they can search, there a few things you need to know. First and foremost, the Fourth Amendment[1] to the United States Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution was made applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Generally, a warrant is required to conduct a lawful search of a person's home. The United States Supreme Court has held that a warrantless search is unreasonable per se. It is a basic principle of constitutional law that illegal searches are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The United States Supreme Court has explained that the Fourth Amendment[2] protects an individual's privacy from arbitrary and invasive police action.

You have similar protections under Connecticut's constitution. Article One, Section 7[3] of Connecticut's Constitution protects against unreasonable intrusions by the state. Both the United States and Connecticut Constitutions reflect the importance of protecting the privacy of citizens' homes. From earliest days, the common law drastically limited the authority of law officers to break the door of a house to arrest anyone. The law indeed has considered that "a man's house is his castle" in restricting the ability of law enforcement to force their way into a home.

There are a few specifically established exceptions to the requirement of a search warrant. If the police obtain the consent from the homeowner or occupant, then the officers may conduct a search. However, once they have consent, the police may be able to barge in and search wherever they please. If someone does consent to an entry into their home, it is important that they make clear the extent of the permission, such as the time, duration, area, or intensity of any search. It is your right, of course, to withhold consent to a warrantless search.

Keeping in mind these constitutional principles regarding searches, the very first thing to ask the police at your door is whether they have a search warrant. If they do not have a warrant, and you do not give your consent for the police to search your home, the police cannot thereafter enter your home to search. However, if you deny police access to your house, they may secure the premises while they attempt to secure a search warrant from a judge.

Another exception to having a warrant is when a crime is in the process of occurring, called "exigent circumstances." The police can take reasonable actions to prevent the crime from being committed. But in the absence of emergency circumstances, the police cannot enter your home without either permission from the homeowner or legal occupant or a valid search warrant.

The lawyers at our firm are experienced with police searches under Connecticut and federal law. They have addressed the issue of unreasonable search and seizures in Connecticut and federal courts, and how the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution affects the right of the police to enter homes. Any of the attorneys in our Criminal Practice area would be happy to discuss any questions you might have regarding search and seizure law in Connecticut.

[1] U.S. Const. amend. IV

The 4th Amendment provides that "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."

[2] The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution was made applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25, 27-28 (1949).

[3] Conn. Const. Article First, § 7 provides: "The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches or seizures; and no warrant to search any place, or to seize any person or things, shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable cause supported by oath or affirmation."