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When can police officers lawfully search a home?

In the movies or on TV, it’s always dramatic. Police officers with weapons and heavy protective gear stand outside someone’s home, rap on the door and yell a warning: “This is the police, open up!”

These portrayals can influence how people in the real world perceive property searches. So, under what circumstances are law enforcement officers actually allowed to search your home? Here’s a brief overview.

With a warrant

If law enforcement officers have a search warrant issued by a judge, they can enter and search your home without your permission. In the event police come to your door and say they have a search warrant, ask to see it. Verify the address is correct before letting them in. You may also want to ask about the purpose of the search and collect the names of the officers, as well as which agency they belong to.

If it is an emergency

If officers are chasing a suspect, they may be able to enter your home or property without permission in order to continue the pursuit. Similarly, if there is an emergency and the officer has to act immediately to save lives or prevent harm, they may enter your home.

With consent

In many cases, an officer will ask someone if it is OK to come inside and look around. If someone at the home says, “Yes,” then they have consented to a search. That means officers are able to then lawfully enter the property and look around.

Particularly with consent, it is important to note there are still some fairly new rules in place for officers with the New York Police Department. Dubbed the “Right to Know Act,” these rules require NYPD officers to expressly talk about consent if they want to search property, but do not otherwise have legal justification (such as a warrant) to do so.

What this means is, an officer must:

  • Clearly ask for the person’s consent to search
  • Explain to the person they can refuse to consent
  • Also explain if they refuse, then the search will not occur
  • Confirm the person understands the conversation
  • Document the process and outcome, with a body camera if they have one

Knowing your rights is key to protecting them. In the moment however, when face-to-face with an officer, it can be easy to feel pressure or get confused. In all cases, even if officers have a warrant, it can not hurt to express you do not consent to any search, gather all names and titles possible and document everything that happens. If you have any concerns or questions afterward, it may then be time to reach out to an attorney.

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