Cops at Your Door: What They Don’t Want You to Know

You may have seen the video I posted last week of police harassing private citizens on their own front porch here in West Virginia. This sort of behavior happens all the time: cops show up to a private residence, they knock on the door. What are your rights in that situation? What rights to the police have to do what they’re doing? Let’s make some things clear. 

For instance, in the McDowell County video I just posted, the officer can be heard multiple times in the body cam footage, claiming that he had reasonable suspicion to justify his behavior, based on the fact that he found what he believed to be four marijuana plants near the home. Based on that, the officer demanded the name and birthdate of the property owner, who was standing on the porch. 

Can police officers, assuming they have reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime was committed, and the property owner on the front porch may have committed it, demand identification under penalty of arrest for obstruction for noncompliance? That’s what ended up happening, of course, as you’ll see if you watch the footage of what happened to Jason Tartt. 

The too-long-didn’t-watch answer is no. If police officers are on your private property, that changes things. Cops are trained on the requirement for reasonable suspicion – to develop some reasonable suspicion they can articulate, even if total B.S., and then that entitles them to forcibly demand identification from whomever they deem a suspect. That is generally how things work in public places – but not on private property, especially a home. 

Let’s look at this scenario of police on your front porch and make sure we’re all on the same page about what the law is, and what the law is not, for both police and the occupants of private property. 

According to the 1980 Supreme Court opinion in Payton v. New York, in order to legally arrest someone in a home, rather than in a public place, absent consent or exigent circumstances, police officers must have a warrant. 

According to the 1984 Supreme Court opinion in Oliver v. United States, the heightened Fourth Amendment protections of the home extend beyond just the interior of the home itself into what’s called the “curtilage” of the home, which is the land immediately surrounding and associated with the home. Why? Because according to the Supreme Court, the curtilage is considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. The Fourth Circuit, where the porch video occurred, just in 2015 issued an opinion holding that a warrantless search of curtilage is presumed to be unreasonable. (Covey v. Assessor of Ohio County).

In the 2013 Supreme Court opinion of Florida v. Jardines, the Court held that a search undoubtedly occurs when the government, without a warrant, obtains information by physically intruding within the curtilage of a house, which in that actual case involved a home’s front porch. The Court cautioned that a search occurs unless a homeowner has explicitly or implicitly sanctioned the government’s physical intrusion into the constitutionally protected area, i.e., the yard and/or porch of the home.

Some of these broad Supreme Court holdings have been interpreted in slightly different ways in different federal appellate circuits. The porch video from last week was from West Virginia, which is in the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit made clear as early as 2001 that police officers will be denied qualified immunity for failing to comprehend that they have no right to enter a home’s curtilage to make an investigation based on reasonable suspicion. (Rogers v. Pendleton). They have no “right.” All they can do is engage in what’s called a “knock and talk.” This is the scenario in the large majority of these front door encounters with police. 

That’s right… Police officers in the Fourth Circuit were cautioned in 2001 that they would be denied qualified immunity for ignorantly believing the existence of reasonable suspicion allowed the to enter and remain in a homeowner’s curtilage without consent of the homeowner. Yet it seems that it’s still being taught to officers, and being used to arrest people. 

Under the “knock and talk” exception to the warrant requirement, a police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home and knock, precisely because that is “no more than any private citizen might do.” This means there is an “implicit license . . . to approach the home by the front path, knock promptly, wait briefly to be received, and then (absent invitation to linger longer) leave.” An officer may also bypass the front door (or another entry point usually used by visitors) when circumstances reasonably indicate that the officer might find the homeowner elsewhere on the property. “Critically, however, the right to knock and talk does not entail a right to conduct a general investigation of the home’s curtilage.”

The obvious difference between a police officer and a young girl selling girl scout cookies, is that many, if not most, homeowners have no idea whether they have any right to refuse to answer the door, or to ask the person to leave. Police like it this way. They don’t inform people of these rights, and the courts have ruled that they have no legal obligation to do so. You have to inform yourself and spread the word. 

Police officers, and anyone else really, have an implied license to come onto your property and knock on your door. This implied license can be revoked. Homeowners can prevent ordinary citizens and police officers alike from conducting a knock and talk by revoking their implied license to be there. However, few citizens know that an implied license exists. Generally, the courts require that a homeowner do so by clear demonstrations or express orders. For instance, asking someone to leave or refusing to answer questions. 

What about no trespassing signs? This is a topic of dispute, and can vary by federal circuit. The Tenth Circuit had a particularly bad opinion on this in the Carloss case, which resulted in one law professor creating “LAWn” signs providing notice to the police that their implied license to perform a knock and talk at the address is revoked. No trespassing can be ambiguous. One could certainly be more specific and avoid the grey area. Of course, another option is verbally telling the police that they’re not welcome and ask them to leave. That’s hard for a lot of people to do. Police know this and use it against you. 

Back to the McDowell County porch case, the officer thought he was smart saying he had reasonable suspicion, and now you have to provide identification or else get arrested for obstruction. But his own footage dooms his defense. He’s well inside private property. The homeowners have clearly expressed that they were afraid of him, asking for his name, which he refused. He arrested their landlord by physically seizing him on the front porch, well within the home’s curtilage, without probable cause and a warrant. The video disproves any later claim of exigent circumstances. More than that – I haven’t shown this footage yet – but he then radioes his superiors on the drive to jail – telling them repeatedly what he had done. There is obviously either a policy of civil rights violations in this department, or systematic ignorance, or both. 

WV Trooper Walks in House and Demands to be Sued

This morning I received multiple links and copies of this video that’s been circulating, showing a West Virginia State Trooper, in what appears to be inside a family’s home without a warrant. Apparently it was originally posted to Tik Tok, and then removed for some reason. It appears to involve a police response to a church traffic cone, which resulted in the homeowner apparently banging on the church’s door at some point. This trooper shows up, walks in the guy’s home, admittedly without a warrant, and without permission. Then the trooper makes a move on the phone, followed by some sort of altercation at the end. Here’s the video, then I’ll address some legal issues which I see:

Okay, to be clear, I know nothing about this situation, other than what is apparent from the video. So what do we know? The purpose for the officer’s presence appears to be for something relatively minor. A dispute of some sort between this guy and a church. We also know that there is no warrant. The officer claims that he was justified to enter and remain inside the man’s home due to his subjective concern that the guy might shoot him. We’re not told what this concern is based on, other than any individual could theoretically shoot anyone at any given moment. We also know that the guy is not in the home with the homeowner’s permission. That much is is said twice during the video, by my count. Also, we see that there appears to have been some sort of use of force by the trooper towards the end of the video. He definitely appears to strike the camera in some way. Whether or not the guy holding the camera was struck or not, we can’t see. But it does sound that way.

So here are some of the questions presented. Is this officer correct that he can just walk in somebody’s home under these circumstances, and remain there? Let’s go over the basics of how the Fourth Amendment applies to the home. 

The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. The Supreme Court has held that, with few exceptions, warrantless searches are “per se unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. Katz v. United States (SCOTUS 1967). “At the very core of the Fourth Amendment stands the right of a man to retreat into his home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion. With few exceptions, the question whether a warrantless search of a home is reasonable and hence constitutional must be answered no.” Kyllo v. United States (SCOTUS 2001).

Inside the home: searches and seizures which take place in a person’s home are presumptively unreasonable, which means they are illegal as the default rule, according to the Fourth Amendment. Outside the home, Fourth Amendment protections only apply where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Thus no warrant is required outside the home, unless a reasonable expectation of privacy exists. Searches or seizures inside a home require a warrant, or a valid exception.

The main exception is consent. A search conducted pursuant to a valid consent is constitutionally permissible. Voluntariness is the standard. Was the defendant’s will overborne? Voluntariness of the consent depends on the totality of the circumstances. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte (SCOTUS 1973). Officers may seek consent-based encounters if they are lawfully present in the place where the consensual encounter occurs. Kentucky v. King (SCOTUS 2011).

The only other valid exception is exigent circumstances. Law enforcement may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with injury. This is known as “exigent circumstances,” and generally refers to some emergency situation. The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency. This is an objective rule. The officers’ subjective motivation is irrelevant. An action is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment regardless of the individual officer’s state of mind, as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the action. Brigham City v. Stuart (SCOTUS 2006).

Exigent circumstances can also apply to allow an entry under some limited circumstances to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence. Minnesota v. Olson (1990), or if the officer is in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect. United States v. Santana (SCOTUS 1976). However, also keep in mind that police cannot create their own exigent circumstances by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment. Their conduct must be reasonable. Kentucky v. King (SCOTUS 2011). Lastly, a home’s front porch, including the area immediately surrounding the house, also enjoys protection as part of the home itself. Where information is gathered by physically entering and occupying that area without consent, it’s a search of the home. 

But is the Fourth Amendment triggered by just entering a home, or even standing on the porch? Understand that you have “consensual encounters,” and then you have Fourth Amendment searches or seizures. Consensual encounters do not trigger the Fourth Amendment.

As a general matter, police officers are free to approach and question individuals without necessarily effecting a seizure. Rather, a person is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment “[o]nly when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.” Terry v. Ohio (SCOTUS 1968). Such a seizure can be said to occur when, after considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court concludes that “a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” Terry v. Ohio; also United States v. Gray (4th Cir. 1989)). Similarly, when police approach a person at a location that they do not necessarily wish to leave, the appropriate question is whether that person would feel free to “terminate the encounter.” See Florida v. Bostick (SCOTUS 1991).

A traffic stop, for instance, is always a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Entering a home to engage in conduct not explicitly or implicitly permitted by the homeowner, is likewise a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Florida v. Jardines (SCOTUS 2013).

Here, if there was no warrant for this state trooper to engage in a search or seizure inside the home, his doing so was presumptively unconstitutional, as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. He clearly did not have consent to be inside the home. It was evident, and apparently undisputed in the video, that the officer entered without permission and wasn’t welcome. It was also apparent that the officer didn’t care. Thus without consent, entering and occupying the home against the will of the homeowner, a Fourth Amendment seizure occurs that is preemptively unconstitutional. 

Don’t forget that he also seizes the camera recording him, which is perhaps a seizure of the homeowner himself, along with the footage that was being recorded. That very well may implicate the First Amendment as well, as you have a right to record the police inside your home, whether this officer, who also ironically says he is also recording, likes it or not. 

But what about exigent circumstances? The officer implies that he’s relying on exigent circumstances – that he followed the homeowner into the house, worried that he was going to be shot by him. He provides no details supporting this alleged concern. I’m skeptical that there’s any basis for this. He can’t call it hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect, because the guy doesn’t appear to have been under arrest.

This is where the officer’s body cam footage, if it exists, which it appears to from the visible camera on his abdomen, would come in handy. I’d also like to review the 911 records and audio, in order to fully understand the facts. It seems a stretch to me to justify exigent circumstances, based on what we see in the video. If he was truly in hot pursuit, he would have seized the guy immediately and taken him into custody, rather than walk in the house and do more of a knock and talk conversation. Which by definition isn’t supposed to take place in the guy’s living room. I’m sure there’s quite a bit of case law on point to this situation, but this is all just generally speaking, without having researched this scenario. There doesn’t appear to be an emergency situation. No medical emergency. No indication that someone’s flushing cocaine down the toilet. No baby choking, and so on. 

So to answer your questions, it looks pretty bad to me, and I wouldn’t doubt it if this trooper might get his wish to be sued, assuming the homeowner wanted to do so. I also wouldn’t doubt it if disciplinary action is taken, given the fact that the video is now out there. However, more information is needed to evaluate his likely only avenue of defense – exigent circumstances. Just my two cents. I’ll provide an update if I learn more about it.