The 5 things you gotta know before you let that cop into your house

July 19 |
Betty Joan Knight
Poor Betty Joan didn't keep her mouth shut when the police knocked on her door. Photo by Angus McDiarmid. Used under Creative Commons license.

The important phrases to remember

  • "I do not consent to any searches."
  • "That is a question for my lawyer."
  • "Am I free to go?"

It could happen for any number of reasons, but it's likely you'll be in a position to deal with the police at some point. Maybe your party gets too rowdy, maybe police are going door to door, or maybe your shitty-apartment-complex neighbor has been having a meth-fueled solo hammer party for four hours and your cranky upstairs neighbor reports you to the cops, so the police wake you up at 4 AM to ask what you are pounding on.

What do you do when you look through the peephole and see a badge?

  1. Remember: You do not have to let the police in the house unless they have a warrant — or probable cause. If you're having a party, turn off the music, ask your guests to chill, and ask that anyone who's too intoxicated carry on in another room.
  2. Go outside to speak with the cops. Close the door behind you. Although some scary precedents are being set these days, police cannot enter your home without a warrant or probable cause. By closing the door, you're cutting off a visual — or olfactory — line to potential probable cause.
  3. Be polite. Ask why they are there. "Good evening, Officer. What can I help you with?"
  4. Where possible, assure them you will take care of the problem. If the police ask to enter, inform them, "I do not consent to any searches." If a police officer gives you an order and you are confused about your position, ask, "Do I have to comply?" If they continue with questioning, tell them you'll need to call your lawyer and that you will not answer any questions.
  5. Ask, "Am I free to leave?" This is especially handy if, say, a group of you'd been too bawdy on the patio and an officer stops by. If he/she is getting a bit hot under the collar, politely ask, "Am I being detained?" or "Am I free to leave?" If the cop has no reason to hold you, quickly, quietly, and politely retreat inside.
[related-post align="right"]Let's level: I watch a looot of Cops. Nearly every episode has a scene in which a redneck or a meth cook unknowingly consents to letting the cops search their car, or worse, their home! The police are great at getting information: they badger with questions, intimidate, make deals — but I promise, nothing will "be easier" if you just answer a few questions.

"But Cat!" you say. "What if I'm just minding my own at a fairly quiet party — and we aren't even breaking any laws!" Don't risk it, man. I've seen many an episode of Cops in which the police, called to a house on one account, sneak their way into getting consent and end up booking the homeowner for something completely unrelated.

If you have any doubts — and 50 minutes to spare — watch this presentation from a former criminal prosecutor/current law professor and his State Trooper buddy on never ever talking to the cops.

This advice is good for the US, but what about other countries? What advice is different when a cop comes to the door in, say, Surrey?

  1. YES!!! So often, people think that telling the cops that they don't consent to a search, won't let them enter without a warrant, or want to contact a lawyer is only something to do if you're a criminal with something to hide. Many people feel those actions are tantamount to confessing to a crime. No freaking way! You have rights!

    37 agree
    • In creepy movies, the bad-guy-posing-as-good-guy/McCarthy-figure ALWAYS says, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." I've always told all my friends and loved ones what my mom told me, "If you don't know and exercise your rights, you never had them to lose."

      28 agree
    • And did you noticed that they removed to PROTECT AND SERVE off the side of there vehicle . .

      7 agree
  2. Also: these are good things to teach your kids, too. While my cop-dad was not excited to know I was a partier in high school, he did at least reinforce the steps I could take to keep my rights protected if something happened while I was at a house party.

    16 agree
  3. I was at a house once where the cops showed up and said they had a report that there was a runaway minor living in the basement. None of us knew what he was talking about, and the owner consented to a search to prove a point– forgetting that he had a stolen road sign in the basement. Whoops. There was a huge fine involved.

    6 agree
    • Thanks Ade. :) That's a perfect example of what I see on Cops. You think you're in the clear, and then…

      9 agree
  4. ALSO VERY IMPORTANT!! ASK FOR BADGE NUMBERS!! In case the cop is not actually a cop, or is a cop overstepping their rights or acting outside the law (hey, it happens!) If you have an officer name and badge number, you can follow up after the fact if you think your rights have been violated.

    18 agree
    • Smart! My mom always pounds that into my head, but she's paranoid that everyone is a rapist. Everyone. You? Probably a rapist waiting for a woman walking alone.

      16 agree
      • Are we related? It sounds like we have the same mom, haha.

        4 agree
        • My dad must be your moms' brother! Oh the safety measures I had to have in place at all times so I wouldn't get raped.

          1 agrees
          • DID YOU KNOW. NEVER SMELL PERFUME SAMPLES IN A PARKING LOT. PEOPLE PUT ETHER ON SLIPS OF PAPER AND THEN CARRY YOU AWAY AND YOU ARE NEVER SEEN AGAIN.

            Thanks, Mom.

            28 agree
        • I think I am both your moms…haha I am suspicious of EVERYONE.

          8 agree
      • Loving this advice on what to do when the police knock.

        And, in relation to moms: I've gotten an email about rape prevention tips for women…. in response I like to ask them to forward this instead: http://www.girlmom.com/node/4342

        4 agree
  5. These are all excellent points! As a recent J.D. I think "am I free to go" and "do I have to comply" are the two best questions to have at the ready when an officer has no warrant. I think it cues them in to the fact that you're aware of your rights and they may as well not try and intimidate you into doing as they ask–but results may vary.

    5 agree
  6. The advice here in Australia is very much the same. A few years ago my partner, a disability support worker, was caring for a wealthy old quadriplegic man who, unbeknown to us, maintained his lifestyle manufacturing illicit substances. My partner was very graciously but repeatedly asked by the police to tell them everything he knew/saw. They were adamant that they knew he was not involved and he would not be in any trouble, they just wanted a statement. Fortunately I worked in the legal industry and was able to get some very quick advice from a criminal lawyer which was, say nothing at all. No matter how nice the police are, if you say anything incriminating they will use it against you be it in the form of a charge or as leverage to get you to give evidence. You don't have to know you are committing a crime to be charged with one. In this case, giving evidence was complicated by the fact this guy had biker gang connections, not a group of people you want to annoy.

    3 agree
    • Thanks for that – I was going to ask if anyone had advice for Australia. Good to know it's similar to what I grew up with in the States. :)

      1 agrees
    • I'm in Australia too and totally agree.

      We sold a car that was then used by some bad people to do something bad. We first knew of this when two cops turned up at our house and demanded we let them look in our garage – no names, no hello, no nothing. My husband said no they couldn't look (in our completely empty) garage. They went to walk away, but my husband asked if it was about the car and when they said it was we were able to give them some information about the guy who bought it. We still didn't let them in the garage though.

      Personally, any time a police officer doesn't start by volunteering their name, where they're from and what exactly they're looking for I'm not willing to co-operate. When it's our local cop – there's only one for our area – who is someone we know as a reasonable and rational person I'm happy to chat and co-operate in any way he asks. Because I know he's not going to charge us with some bullshit just because he can and isn't trying to set us up in some way, but is genuinely focussed on doing what he can for our community. Though I do find it helps that we're volunteer firefighters.

      Also, I want our kids to learn to trust the fire fighters and police officers that we know and trust, but to be critical of those we don't.

      7 agree
    • So what you're saying is that this guy had a right to be above the law? It's kind of sad that a group of people whose job it is to keep the peace are being totally demonised here. By all means, know your rights, and I agree, in every industry there are those who are good and those who may take advantage of you. But to condemn a whole profession by saying that you should never ever cooperate with a government body who is trying to keep the law that your govt created (that you democratically voted in), that says something fairly sad. We live in nice first world countries here (Aust and USA). We are so lucky to *have* a legal system and not be overrun by corruption or crime.

      5 agree
      • Well said! Police protect and serve everyday and put their lives on the line on a regular basis, all hours of the day, on holidays and in severe weather! It's a thankless job and their ultimate goal is to go home at the end of the day to their families. Many officers make the ultimate sacrifice everyday to help people who badmouth them on threads like this one. Know your rights like a good citizen should… but shame on all of you for bad mouthing police, convincing folks not to help make a difference, and implying that folks should not cooperate in investigations of crimes!

        1 agrees
        • I think the idea is more to be polite but firm. Police are very important and they serve an amazing role in our communities, but they are human as well and can make mistakes. Treating them with courtesy and respect but not letting them intimidate or guilt you into anything keeps the relationship between protector and protected healthy.

          20 agree
  7. Thank you for this! Very important to know, and to share.

    Having been harassed by dirty cops for things I didn't do (they would repeatedly show up at midnight to question my family about the whereabouts of a friend, convinced she was staying with us), I learned these things in high school the hard way. If I had these phrases then, I could have saved myself a HUGE headache, I'm sure. Or at least been more prepared to deal with the onslaught.

    3 agree
  8. Last time we had a party I had a note on the front door for my guests saying "come through, we're out the back"…. When someone in the neighbourhood called the police to complain about the noise, they arrived and saw the note and came right on in. Thankfully we weren't doing anything any naughtier than playing music. And frankly I had been trying to get my musician friends to stop playing for a while at that point, so my response to the police telling me to stop the racket was "I absolutely agree officer, I'll get them to stop now".. BUT it did definitely teach me not to leave notes like that on my front door! ps – I'm in Queensland, Australia.

    4 agree
  9. Is it weird that my parents pounded my right via police interaction into me from a very young age? They were hippie damn the man types and didn't trust the police and were ALWAYS quizzing us on our rights.

    It actually turned out to be useful in 5th grade when some jerkwad apartment neighbor of ours called Social Services because I was walking around outside barefoot. What can I say, I didn't like wearing shoes! They pulled me out of class and tried interrogating me for an hour while I kept saying, "I can't talk to you without a parent or lawyer here." I think the social worker wanted to beat her head into the wall by the time we were done lol.

    33 agree
      • Maby she didnt have any red coolaid staines on her face to support her bare foot case!!!

        0 agree
  10. Hah…I wish I had brushed up on my rights a few years back. My friend and I were driving three hours to our hometown when we were pulled over for no reason–honestly, no reason. They weasled an ok to search my friend's car out of him and they let a drug dog loose all over the inside of the car! Shit got tumbled around, the food wrapper I had just eaten a (nasty) hot dog out of was all over the place and to top it off, they took my buddy's butterfly knife and, when he finally got smart and spoke up about the true need for any of this, the cop told us that if we tried to take any of this to court, they would bring up the knife and the fact that it's illegal. Thinking about it now pisses me off to no end, but at the time it was the dead of night, middle of winter and we were tired and just wanted to go home. Since then, I've learned my rights and what to do if I feel I'm being treated in an improper way.

    6 agree
    • No such thing as "probable cause" in the UK. If they want to search you or your home, they can.

      0 agree
      • That may be the case in Scotland (I don't know the legal system up there), but it's not the case in England: http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/index/your_rights/legal_system/police_powers.htm

        "The police can stop and search any person, vehicle, and anything in or on the vehicle for certain items. However, before they stop and search they must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they will find:

        •stolen goods, or
        •drugs, or
        •an offensive weapon, or
        •any article made or adapted for use in certain offences, for example a burglary or theft, or
        •knives, or
        •items which could damage or destroy property, for example spray paint cans."

        And further down: "Police can only enter premises without a warrant if a serious or dangerous incident has taken place."

        There are a few limited exceptions to these rules, but it's definitely not the case that police can search you or your property at any time without cause.

        5 agree
  11. It *almost* goes without saying, but not all law enforcement officers are bad guys. My husband is one, and he's so totally not out to rough up anyone, especially not a family that's just trying to do their thing. In addition to teaching your kids (and each other) about your rights, please also teach them that LEOs really are there to help, with a few exceptions.

    12 agree
    • Absolutely. I have never had a bad experience with police officers, though one dude who pulled me over was less than polite!

      I really hope the take away here is not "cops are your enemy" but instead, "know your rights and don't be a dick."

      24 agree
  12. Again with the not all cops are bad line… they're not. My mama is a cop with 25+ years on and I know she's done so much good. She says, if you're polite, well spoken, and are not trying to be an aggressor/not falling over yourself high/drunk, they will give you some credit. I think the biggest thing to remember is that this is their job, and they know more about the law in terms of what is/is not allowed than you do. Additionally, they don't WANT to bring you in. That means a ton of paperwork for them, and they just want to go home to their families.

    This is not to say that everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt, but honestly, they are people, too. Just don't be an idiot.

    10 agree
  13. Also know the rights you have wherever you're living. I'm talking about dorms on campus – oftentimes the police or security there can get probable cause just from an RA saying that he or she suspects something. I was an RA for 2 years, and unfortunately there were a couple of situations where I had to call for police back up because I felt like situation might be unsafe. Most universities operate on a rather-safe-than-sorry, and they would take a denial of letting an RA into a room as reasonable suspicion for the police back up to enter without a warrant. For some reason this is legal, I'm unclear on this but it has something to do with special responsibility universities have to students living on campus.

    The take-away message is that if you're living on campus, don't do anything illicit there. Just don't. Go off campus, because you don't want to put yourself in a bad situation because an RA got all power-hungry and it let the police do some pretty dumb things. It happened a few times while I was there (other RAs), and I hated it, but there's nothing you can do for the most part, once you get into that situation.

    3 agree
    • I work for housing at my school, and when you agree to live on campus you agree to let housing and other campus officials into your room whenever they feel have cause. It's written on the contract.

      It does open things up to abuse but that has rarely been a problem on my campus and when it was abused the people involved were fired immediately.

      1 agrees
  14. ACLU law clerk here: awesome post! Americans can check out their state ACLU affiliate's website for a state-specific card with this info, and also what to do if stopped in your car.

    5 agree
  15. we had the police raid our house because the friend of the previous owner had given our address when he was busted at a Gang HQ. 6 officers turned up in riot gear and barged in – there was no option to ask what they were up to! By the time they'd realised they had the wrong house my husband was a wreck (i was thankfully not home) and one officer had pulled him aside: "Can we ask you some questions?" H pauses in terror wondering where the hell our solicitors number is and the officer says "how to you get your courgettes to grow so well? my wife and I have no end of trouble with them" ah, New Zealand.

    13 agree
    • WOW. At least you got a very good story out of a horrible experience.

      3 agree
    • and now, in addition to learning how to protect my rights, I have learned a new word for zucchini! I love new words. :D

      5 agree
  16. What a great post. I agree that the main point here is "know your rights" and not "all cops suck." I've had more positive interactions with police than negative, but like any profession or group, there are a few bad apples out there. If the police show up at your door, you don't know if you're getting a normal reasonable person or one of the few who have let their authority get mixed up with their ego. And I think good cops benefit from citizens who exercise their rights because both the police and the people are helping to keep the system just for everyone.

    4 agree
  17. My rule of thumb, at least in the daylight is, if the cop won't take off his damned black glasses to talk to me, I'm going to be as politely unhelpful as I possibly can.

    9 agree
  18. Same rules applies in Canada (but they don't have to read your rights)
    Magic words: "i do not consent to a search", "do you have a warrent", "am I being detained?". If you are not being detained you do do have to talk to the cops any longer. (and don't talk to them!) You have to give your name and address if you are being detained but nothing else. Don't give them a fake name, that's a crime. Don't talk to them! Especially if you are an interrogation room, no matter what happens wait until a lawyer gets there. Even if they beat you, stay quiet , better than spending years in jail because there was an inconsistency even though you did nothing wrong.

    3 agree
  19. On a related note, I know from my lawyer-father that if you are pulled over under suspicion of drunk driving, you can by law (at least in Washington State), refuse the field sobriety test. This does mean that you will be given the breathalyzer, but if they do not have this in the truck, you will be brought into the station. However, if you refuse the breathalyzer, they will automatically suspend your license. However, if you haven't been driving drunk (and, please don't), this can get your out of the field sobriety test, which is stressful and embarrassing, even when sober.

    5 agree
    • IHere in my home town the law enforcement come to my house about 3 times a week it seems like they take turns one day its the marshal then sheriff then city cop they keep coming to my house looking for my ex boy friend I haven't seen or heard from him over a year or so I've moved on but they won't leave me alone I let them search my house every time they come so they can see that I have nothing to hide but they just won't stop coming it getting old and embarrassing the nabors are always staring its not good for my kids what can I do about this I want them to leave me alone

      1 agrees
      • Ramona, I'm sorry. That is real harassment. You should turn them into internal affairs and talk to your Attorney General of your state.

        6 agree
  20. Ramona, everything in this article and video told you what you need to know. Stop talking to the cops and they will back off.

    0 agree
  21. here in brazil police won't bother you at parties most times. Everyone drinks at high school parties and cops NEVER show up.

    0 agree
  22. And for the love of god, if you ever suspect that you will be in a position where the cops may kick down your door, GET A BETTER DOOR!

    If any average adult male can kick your door down in a few seconds without the use of a battering ram or explosives, what good is that door doing for you anyway? Any criminal could do the same and gain entry to your house for less reputable motivations. It always astounds me while watching cops how many idiots out there think having two locks, a deadbolt and a chain means that your crappy wooden hollow core door is going to keep anyone out.

    5 agree
  23. One other tip – at least in Scotland – if you ever have to give a statement about anything, as a witness, make sure they write down verbatim what you actually say and read it through before you sign it. Don't sign anything that didn't actually come out of your mouth. Even if it's just worded in a different way.

    1 agrees

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