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Do you have a duty to open your door for the police?

If the police have a warrant to search your home, you have to let them in. A warrant is a court order requiring you to stand aside and let them perform the search described.

Many times, however, police search homes when they don't have warrants. The constitution requires either a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement in order for police to search. Common exceptions involving home searches include searches incident to a lawful arrest, when evidence is in the plain view of police, consent by the resident, and the emergency exception, when police reasonably believe that someone inside is in immediate need of assistance.

When the police come to your door, not with a warrant, but acting on an exception to the warrant requirement, what duty do you owe them? You can't impede law enforcement in their duties, but are you required to actively assist them?

This question is currently before the Washington Supreme Court. While the decision will only apply in Washington state, we thought it was interesting because police are increasingly insisting that Americans are required to follow all their lawful orders. It's also a case of first impression, meaning that legal scholars believe Washington could be the first state to rule that citizens owe the police assistance when the officers are acting on a warrant exception.

In the case before the court, police were notified of an argument at a Seattle-area residence. By the time the officers arrived, the argument had subsided, but they still wanted to enter the residence. According to reports, they spent 15 minutes arguing with the resident, who insisted that the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, protected his right to keep the officers out.

At some point, police say they heard glass shattering. This led them to believe that someone inside needed immediate assistance. On that authority, they broke down the door. Apparently, there was no one actually hurt. However, the resident was charged with and convicted of obstruction of officers and sentenced to 20 days of house arrest.

The resident did nothing to impede the officers; he simply refused to open his door on police orders. And, courts have ruled that Americans are free to assert their Fourth Amendment rights as long as they don't commit another crime in doing so. Washington prosecutors contend that the resident did commit another crime -- obstruction.

Doubting the constitutional authority of police to search your home should not be treated as a crime. Indeed, every citizen should have free rein to question the legal justification for any police action. Insisting on one's rights should simply never be illegal.

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