The scene can be something straight out of a movie. You and your friends are at someone’s house party, watching a movie or just spending some time together. Maybe you’ve had a few drinks, and the music is a bit louder than it normally is.
Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. When you answer, you see two police officers in the entry. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, your heart might skip a beat, and depending on the circumstances, your night could go one of many ways.
Everyone in the United States has rights when the police knock at their door. But many people unwittingly throw their Constitutional protections out the window in the first few minutes of interaction.
Here are some rights you have when the police come knocking, and some tips on how to conduct yourself safely:
When police are at your door, in most situations, you do not have to let them inside. This can help protect you and other people inside from unwanted interactions with law enforcement.
In 2016, Alexandra Scott was attending the University of Colorado in Boulder. Following finals in December, she and her roommates, who lived off-campus, decided to have a few friends over for a celebration. A friend brought alcohol, and though Scott was only 20 at the time, she was drinking.
“It was celebration time, really,” Scott said. “In my mind, I thought I was being responsible and drinking at home. I wasn’t out on the road driving, or sneaking into a bar or anything like that.”
As the night continued, the gathering became a little rowdy. Music was playing loudly and people began shouting over each other to be heard.
Then, three sharp bangs were heard at the door. Scott’s friend looked through the peephole and told the party that the police were knocking. Scott retreated to the kitchen.
“I guess at some point someone called the police with a noise complaint, then my friend let the cops in,” Scott said, “Before I knew it, there was an officer in the kitchen asking me for my name and ID.”
Scott says she got a ticket that night for underage drinking, but her friend, who had a warrant for not paying a court fine, ended up being arrested.
Scott recognizes she shouldn’t have been drinking, but if the person who answered the door had known their rights and talked to police outside, she wouldn’t have risked losing her scholarships and may have not gotten a ticket.
“My friend spent the weekend in jail, had to call his parents, and it was this huge deal,” Scott said. “All because of a noise complaint.”
Aaron Tucek with the American Civil Liberties Union said that if the police come to your door, you don’t have to let them in unless they have a warrant or there is a life-threatening situation, such as a fire, or a threat to your or the public’s safety.
Police may try to persuade you to let them in, and can be quite convincing, but the ACLU advises against letting officers into your home.
“Talk with the officers through the door and ask them to show you identification,” Tucek said. “You do not have to let them in unless they can show you a warrant signed by a judicial officer that lists your address as a place to be searched or that has your name on it as the subject of an arrest warrant.”
You might not be doing anything wrong, but dealing with police officers can be stressful regardless. You might act in ways you normally wouldn’t.
Though it is important to hold law enforcement officials accountable for the way they respond, being abrasive, unruly or impolite can land you into trouble.
Robert Sykes, a civil rights attorney based in Salt Lake City, said many violent incidences and arrests begin when a person tries to argue.
“A lot of the problems in the cases that I get is that they’re avoidable in people just being courteous to each other,” Sykes said. “Don’t interfere, don’t get verbal with them if you don’t have to. Let them do their job and try to avoid confrontations. A lot of these things can be avoided, but it doesn’t justify police using excessive force.”
If a situation escalates and you believe the police are violating your rights, there are things you can do to document the incident and make sure your voice is heard.
Tucek of the ACLU gave several pointers for what to do if you believe your rights are being violated:
Hopefully, the interactions you have with police officers are brief and stress-free. Still, knowing your rights is a vital part of living in the United States. For more information on interacting with police, visit aclu.org.
Taylor Hartman is a writer from Salt Lake City. He works at KUED, Utah’s PBS station. He loves the outdoors and discovering and writing new stories.