What to Do (and Not Do) When a Cop Knocks on Your Door

What to Do (and Not Do) When a Cop Knocks on Your Door
Image: Photographee.eu, Shutterstock

Our homes are the centre of our lives. They’re meant to be places of calm, places of safety — and the one place in our lives where our privacy reigns supreme. We rest there, we play there, and increasingly we work there. It’s essential that our homes feel safe.

That sense of serenity and security is why the experience of having the police knock on your door is so disruptive. Most people are a bit confused in terms of where their rights end and police authority begins, and the worst possible time to figure it out is when a few impatient officers are at your front door. Just like a traffic stop, your mind instantly goes to whether or not you’ve done something wrong, and then you worry that being uncooperative in any way might blow back on you. After all, we know that the police can lie pretty broadly to you, and when they knock on your door you only have seconds to process their presence and come up with a game plan.

So, come up with a game plan now. Luckily, this is easy, because your rights and the limits of police authority are actually pretty crystal clear. So what do you do if your day is interrupted by police at your front door?

Know your rights

First and foremost, keep this in mind: You are under no obligation to cooperate with the police. This is not an anti-police attitude — it’s a pro-civil rights attitude. Private property in this country is sacrosanct. The whole point of a warrant — whether it’s a search warrant or what’s known as a Feeney warrant granting the police the authority to enter a home in order to arrest someone — is that police must obtain special permission to enter a private home. You are under zero obligation to surrender that privacy if a warrant isn’t in play.

The police have the right to approach your home and knock on your door, however. No amount of PRIVATE PROPERTY signs on your lawn prevents them from doing so. They must announce themselves, but again, you do not have to respond, open your door, or do anything else. If the police have a warrant that gives them permission to enter your home, they will do so with or without your cooperation, so it might be in your best interests to let them in, but that’s entirely up to you.

There are a few exceptions that allow the police to enter your home without a warrant:

  • Probable cause. Just as with car searches, if the police have a reasonable reason to believe a crime is being committed, they can enter your home without a warrant.
  • Exigent circumstances. If the police believe someone is in imminent danger of harm, or if they believe evidence might be destroyed in order to prevent an arrest, they can enter your home without a warrant. For example, if someone calls 0-0-0 from your house and the call is cut off, police would have grounds to enter without your permission. Note that this doesn’t grant the police the right to search your home once inside — that still requires a warrant.
  • Hot pursuit. If the cops are chasing a suspect and they flee into your home, the police don’t have to stop at the front door. This is a pretty narrow exception — essentially, this involves police witnessing a crime and chasing a suspect directly. They can’t show up hours later accusing you of harbouring a criminal. Again, this doesn’t allow the police to search your home while effecting the arrest.
  • Consent. This one is tricky. If someone with “real authority” gives the police permission to enter, they can do so. The consent must be voluntary (not coerced in any way) and it must be informed, meaning the police must make the person aware of their right to refuse. And the person consenting must have authority to do so. Some neighbour’s kid who wanders in from the game room can’t just give cops the nod, which generally means it has to be an adult occupant of the home. Consent can be construed to apply to a search as well.

Bottom line: You don’t have to cooperate if the police show up at your door. If they have a warrant, they’re coming in anyway. If they don’t, it’s entirely up to you whether you open the door, answer their questions, or interact with them in any way.

What to do

So, what’s the script when police show up at your door unexpectedly? Here’s what you should do:

  • Decide if you want to interact. You are under no obligation to do so. You can choose not to respond in any way, or you can choose to communicate without opening your door. If you have a lawyer, consider calling them before doing anything.
  • Ask them to identify themselves. If you do choose to respond, your first step is to simply ask who it is. Make them identify themselves and tell you their purpose.
  • Determine if you want to speak with the officers. Again, this is entirely up to you. While most of the time it’s probably wise to assist the police (we’re living in a society, after all), never forget it’s always up to you. Inside your home, you have pretty broad discretion on how you spend your time. You can choose to open the door and talk to the police, invite them inside, or to step outside and close the door behind you to have the conversation.
  • Be polite and don’t resist. If the police are there to ask you about something — a noise complaint, for example — it’s always in your best interests to be respectful. And if you deny permission to enter and the police do so anyway, don’t try to resist. At that point it’s out of your hands — either they have good reason to do so, or you will have an opportunity to seek redress through the proper channels later.

Agreeing to speak with the police at your door does not imply consent to enter — and generally speaking, you should always refuse to let police enter your home. Again, this isn’t because you’re secretly operating a crime ring in your basement (are you?) or because you hate police; it’s simply because you’re asserting your rights as a citizen.

That being said, in most cases, the police politely knocking on your door is probably a benign situation where your cooperation as a citizen would be beneficial. Just keep your rights in mind that when talking to the police, a desire to be a good citizen doesn’t waive any of your rights to privacy.

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