This article answers the following questions:
The police can, of course, enter and search an apartment with a properly issued warrant. But officers are normally not allowed to search the home of a renter just because the landlord consents. The theory is that the apartment is, after all, the renter’s. (For related reading, see our article on who can let the police search your home.)
Circumstances do arise, however, where a landlord is legally authorized to allow the police to enter or search an apartment or apartment building. The police don’t need a warrant to enter an apartment, for instance, when there’s an emergency. Landlords may also let officers search some parts of an apartment complex other than the apartments themselves.
In one New York case, for instance, an appeals court said it was fine that the police entered the hallway outside the suspect’s apartment. The court ruled that way because the building’s landlord let the police in, and she had enough “authority and control over the premises” to do so. (People v. Wells, 532 N.Y.S.2d 877 (1988).)
If the landlord agrees, the police are usually within their rights to search an apartment that a renter has vacated. And they can typically search an apartment from which a renter has been evicted.
In one California case, for instance, a property manager told the police that tenants were being evicted for being late on their rent. She told the police that, while she was moving the tenants’ property out, she found drugs. She let the police into the apartment, and the officers seized the drugs. The issue in the case was whether evidence of the drugs was allowed in court. The court held that the evidence was indeed admissible. It explained that a landlord who has taken “actual possession” of the premises has authority to consent to a police search. (The court also said that the search was okay because the officers acted on the reasonable belief that the consent to search was valid because the apartment had been repossessed.) (People v. Superior Court, 3 Cal. App. 3d 648 (1970).)
How far the landlord and tenant are in the eviction process is a critical factor in evaluating the legitimacy of a landlord's consent to search. For example, in one case, a landlord orally told her tenants that they would be evicted by a particular date unless they got completely caught up on rent. On the date in question, she entered the apartment to clean it, found a sawed-off shotgun, summoned the police, and let them search the premises. State law required the landlord to give written notice of eviction, which she hadn’t done. The court determined that the tenants hadn’t actually been evicted, and that therefore the landlord didn’t have authority to consent to the search of the apartment. (United States v. Botelho, 360 F. Supp. 620, 622 (D. Haw. 1973).)
As with so many legal issues, the law in your state will control the circumstances that create a valid eviction and allow the landlord to consent to a search of the premises.