Last weekend we had a party at my house. The house is located off-campus, and I rent it with three guys from my class. Anyway, to make a long story short, the cops showed up. We (my housemates and I) got cited for noise violations, and a lot of our friends got citations for underage drinking, open container violations and public drunkenness. I don’t remember it very well, but it seems like the police sort of just barged into the house. Can they do that?
Was there a way I could have kept them away, or at least outside?
– Alec, Senior, Private College or University, Minnesota
If the police have a warrant, arrest or search, you have to let them in. Otherwise they can only come in under three very specific circumstances: if there is a real emergency occurring (someone is screaming for help and they can hear it), if they have probable cause to believe a crime is being committed or if you invite them.
It seems strange, but most of the time the police enter a party because an owner of the house allows them to come in. They’ll say something such as, “We want to look around and make sure everything’s OK.” I’m betting that this is what happened to you. You just didn’t realize at the time what you were agreeing to. Next time don’t make this mistake. If the police don’t have a warrant, and you don’t want them to come in, politely say, “No thank you, I do not consent to you coming into my home.”
If they insist on coming in even over your demand that they stay out, say very loudly that you do not consent to their entrance into your home and make sure that a number of sober and trustworthy friends witness this. Of course, in a situation where the police enter without your permission DO NOT attempt, under any circumstances, to physically keep them out. Doing so will likely buy you a citation for assaulting an officer of the law and, worse yet, may end up getting you seriously hurt. So simply state your objections and step aside.
Whether or not the police or security officers try to come in, they may start to ask you questions or ask you to show them some form of identification. You are under no obligation to talk to them. Still, it’s a good idea to talk just enough to find out why they’re at your door, but that’s it. If they ask you a question that you don’t feel comfortable answering, simply decline to answer in a polite, conversational tone. Also be careful about answering questions that may give the police a reason to come in.
The best strategy is to be careful not to attract the attention of the authorities in the first place. First, keep your party as quiet as possible. The best way to get noticed is to be loud. Most parties are broken up because of calls from the neighbors, so take a few steps to prevent this: Let your neighbors know ahead of time that you’ll be having some people over. Give them your phone number and ask them to call you, instead of the police, if the party gets too loud.
Second, keep the party contained. Make sure everyone stays inside, or in the backyard. Keep people off the front yard. This may seem unimportant, but if the cops do show up and people are on public land, they are open to a much wider variety of citations, such as public drunkenness and possession of an open container.
Finally, be as private as possible. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lot of people over, but don’t print up fliers to the party and litter the campus with them. If you do this, the party will be considered open to the public, and anyone will be able to enter, including the police if they show up. So give invitations just to your friends. Also, post someone at the door and enforce some kind of a rule for entering the party. People should know one of the hosts, or at least be a friend-of-a-friend of one of the hosts, to get in to the party.
(C.L. Lindsay III is an attorney and the executive director of CO-STAR, the Coalition for Student & Academic Rights. CO-STAR is a network of lawyers, professors and students who work to protect academic freedom and constitutional rights at college campuses nationwide. If you have a question for CO-STAR, log on to their Web site at www.co-star.org.)
The material in this column addresses general legal issues only; is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such, and may or may not be appropriate to a specific situation. Laws and procedures change frequently and are subject to differing interpretations. This column is not intended to create, and does not create, a lawyer-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.