Warrant Execution and Unreasonable Police Behavior

There are limits to the ways police officers can act while enforcing a warrant. Learn your rights.

By , Attorney

When the police knock on your door, you don't have to let them in—unless they have a search warrant signed by a judge. Even if they have a warrant, police can't act however they please. Officers should exercise the utmost care when executing a warrant. However, what's considered unreasonable behavior can be surprising.

This article will review what authority police need to search your home and the manner in which it should be done.

When Police Can Enter Your Home

The police are standing at your door—do you need to let them in? No, police generally need a warrant to search your home, and you can ask them to show you the warrant. If the police don't have one, you can refuse them entry. If the officer hands you a warrant, make sure that it specifies your address.

What Does a Warrant Look Like?

Typically, the search warrant will be a document signed by a judge that allows a police officer to search for specific items at a particular place and time. For example, a search warrant may authorize a police search of "a single-family home located at 123 Main St." for "drugs and drug paraphernalia, packaging materials, scales, and other devices used for the preparation, sale, and administration of said drugs, any United States currency, and any weapons."

Police Don't Always Need a Warrant

Several exceptions to the warrant requirement exist. For instance, when police don't have a warrant, they can simply ask the person in control of the premises to consent to a search of their home. Officers don't have to inform the person that they can refuse consent. Saying "no" to a fully uniformed officer can be intimidating, so this method tends to frequently work for officers.

Other exceptions that permit warrantless entry into a home include when officers are in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, when an officer sees contraband (illegal items) in plain view, or when certain emergency or urgent circumstances exist (someone is screaming for help in the home).

When Police Must Knock and Announce Their Presence

Even with the warrant, officers can't generally barge into a home unannounced. Called the knock-and-announce or knock-notice rule, this rule requires officers to announce their presence before entering a person's home. Officers must knock on the door, announce their presence and purpose, and give the property owner a chance to open the door before entering. (Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927 (1995).)

Purpose of the Knock-and-Announce Rule

Requiring officers to knock and announce themselves is meant to:

  • protect the safety of the officers and occupants of the home
  • protect the privacy of the occupants (such as by allowing them to dress)
  • prevent the occupants from mistakenly believing the officers are intruders, and
  • prevent violence and destruction of property.

Unfortunately, the rule doesn't always work how it's supposed to. Some officers might only give an occupant seconds to open the door, which may not be enough time for the confused and bewildered homeowner to register what's occurring. If it's the middle of the night, more confusion and panic can ensue.

Exceptions to the Knock-and-Announce Rules

Like the warrant exceptions noted above, many exceptions exist that dispense with the knock-and-announce rule. Officers generally don't need to knock, announce, and wait if they:

  • are pursuing a suspect
  • reasonably believe that someone inside is being harmed, or
  • have reason to believe that an announcement might put them in danger, allow for the occupants to destroy evidence, or allow the suspect to flee.

If officers anticipate these circumstances in advance, they can apply for a no-knock warrant from a judge. Other times, they dispense with the knocking and announcing based on exigent circumstances upon arriving at the home.

Police Behavior While Conducting a Search of a Home

Police searches should be conducted in a reasonable and respectful manner. This requirement includes showing the occupant of the home a copy of the warrant upon request. But if the occupant doesn't ask, the officer doesn't need to immediately display the warrant.

What Can Police Search?

Police can search only the place described in the warrant. For example, if they have a warrant to search your car, they can't also search your house.

Officers can seize any contraband or evidence of a crime that they find while executing a warrant, even if the object isn't mentioned in the warrant. Officers can also take reasonable steps to protect themselves during a search, such as telling the occupants of the place to be searched to remain in a certain area and even handcuffing them.

Can Police Break Down My Door in a Raid?

If an officer announces their purpose to enter the home and the person refuses, the officer can break down any outer or inner door or window to conduct the search. A no-knock warrant might also permit this type of entry. But if the occupant complies with officers' demands in a timely manner, police should not break down doors for any other purpose beyond what's necessary to conduct the search and ensure officer and occupant safety.

Can Police Destroy My Property During a Search?

In some instances, damage to property may be inevitable during a search. However, officers shouldn't bust open cabinets and doors or destroy property if a simple request to the occupant will do. The basic rule is that police should act in a reasonable manner and not abuse their authority.

Are Police Liable for Damaging Property or Executing a Search in an Unreasonable Manner?

People's homes are their castles, and the Fourth Amendment requires officers searching them to do so in a reasonable manner. If officers act unreasonably, a court may exclude evidence that they find. In the Thompson case (above sidebar), the court found that the officers acted unreasonably and threw out the evidence they found during the search.

An aggrieved citizen might also have a claim for civil liability against the officer or the law enforcement agency for certain unreasonable actions taken in the search. The basis for such claims could include invasion of privacy, trespass, or property damage.

Consult a Lawyer

If the police ask to search your home or you've been the subject of a police raid, talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the law in your jurisdiction and protect your rights. If you feel that officers violated your rights with an illegal or unreasonable search, you may want to talk to a civil rights or personal injury attorney about filing a complaint or a lawsuit.

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