Chattanooga boasts a population of 180,000 residents and is home to over 10,000 students. Like many metropolitan areas, a large majority of residents live in one of Chattanooga’s many apartment complexes or in university housing. And although you may not own the place in which you live, you are always protected by your basic 4th amendment rights.
There are only 4 ways that the police, campus, city, or county, are legally allowed to enter your residence; and even then, there are certain nuances in each situation that may or may not grant the police the ability to search through your residence and belongings.
1 - You Consent to Their Entry and/or Search
This is pretty easy to understand; if the police ask to come in and/or search through your things, and you give an affirmative answer (yes, I don’t mind, If you want to, etc.), they are allowed to do so. If police are asking for your permission to come in and/or search you, this usually means that although they suspect that you might be in possession of something illegal, they do not have the ability to enter and/or search otherwise. And the exercise of your 4th amendment rights cannot be used to suggest that you are in fact hiding anything on you or in your house. In any case, it is always best to clearly decline to the officer(s) whatever it is they are asking your permission to do. You have nothing to gain, and everything to lose from consenting to their entry or search.
It is also important to note that if the police are searching you or your residence based on your consent, you also maintain the right to revoke that consent at any time. As long as you clearly and effectively communicate to the officer that you are revoking that consent, they must stop.
2 - There Are Exigent Circumstances Which Require Immediate Action
Exigent Circumstances are defined as circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry was necessary to:
- prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons,
- the destruction of relevant evidence,
- the escape of the suspect,
- or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts
If an officer can reasonably establish that they have to enter your home to prevent any of the aforementioned situations from happening before they could obtain a search warrant then they are allowed to do so. However, if a court finds that there was not enough reason to establish exigent circumstances, then the officer’s entry could be deemed illegal and the evidence gathered against you during that entry would have to be thrown out.
3 - They Execute a Legal Warrant
If the police come to your home to execute a search warrant, you are legally compelled to allow them entry into the places defined by that warrant. And if you aren’t available to let them in, they are allowed to take reasonable measures to force entry into your residence and the specific places the warrant references. If the police come to your door claiming to have a search warrant, your best course of action would be to check the warrant first, verify that it is legitimate, and allow them to get to the places they need to, to avoid unnecessary damage to yourself or your property. You are entitled to a copy of the warrant, so make sure that you get one to verify that the search that took place was authorized and legal.
4 - Your Housing Agreement Says Otherwise
If you live in university housing or an apartment complex, the contract or lease that you sign might detail more specific policies concerning how campus police or other authorized officials might be granted access to your room, for what purposes they are, and how you are notified of that access.
Typically, renters of an apartment or a house maintain largely the same rights as home-owners. If a landlord wants to enter or allow police to enter, the residence of a tenant, they must establish that there is an emergency taking place that requires immediate action. But other than that, a tenant usually has to be notified, aware, and consenting to the entry for it to occur.
Someone living in university or campus housing however, typically signs away a few of their rights they might normally have. Inspections are typically allowed to happen with or without your consent, but you are usually notified prior to that. And in many cases, a school will outline in the housing agreement or the student handbook definitions regarding campus police’s ability to enter university housing, what they are allowed to look at and look through, and how the student is notified about this. This is why it is always important to read through your entire lease, housing contract, or any other form that you have to sign to be as familiar as possible with policies and rules that will be affecting you.
What Should I Do When the Police Come to My Door?
Unless the police are executing a search warrant like is mentioned above, there is no reason you need to even answer the door. You should really only speak to the police in the case that you reached out to them, and are in need of help or assistance. And if you are wanting to speak with them, it is advised that you step outside to where they are, without inviting them in, and close the door behind you to avoid any and all access to the inside of your home. Unless they inform you that you are legally compelled to comply with their demands, it is always best to politely and clearly deny anything that they are asking of you, whether that is to speak to you, search you or your things, or enter your residence.